I'm sure you've heard that one of the new crazes here in Bedlam (i.e., public high schools) is a Zero Grade Policy.
Sounds like a good idea to me: Zero grades. No grades at all. I mean, really, what good are they? Who can show me a human life made happier, more fulfilling or more successful in any meaningful way by high grades in secondary school?
Wait, what? That's not what is meant by a Zero Grade Policy? It's about not giving zeroes to student work? That's different.
I predict that this new policy will find fertile ground in the barren minds of the people who impose education policy on educators. For them, there is good reason to implement such a policy: Someone wrote a book in which he claimed it was a good idea. He pointed to some research that showed it was a good idea. The policy imposers almost understood the book (so it must've been good) and the author's use of research seemed to be valid (so it must've been).Then some school districts adopted the plan. Therefore, other school districts should fall in line and adopt it as well. That way, we'll all have that plan and that will be good.
But while we wait and resist in the gentle and civil manner of teachers who tended to be the good, authority-pleasing kids in their school days, we should busy ourselves with asking some rudimentary questions about graded assignments.
Why do we assign work to be graded? How many graded tasks do we assign in, say, a quarter? Why do we assign that many? Would students learn just as much if we assigned fewer? Would we be better teachers if we didn't spend our weekends, especially the ones with blue skies, grading work that students didn't want to do and which 90% of them only took a cursory jab at?
Why do some students not turn in some or all of those assignments? Would we turn in those assignments if we were students?
As for the number of grades we "need" to have: The college classes in which I learned the most, the ones that inspired me to try to become an authority in some field or other, to become a guide through the Halls of Knowledge, in these classes I had exactly two grades: a midterm and a final. No safety nets, no gimmes, just two occasions during a quarter to demonstrate my newly gained expertise. I studied my butt off for those exams and I can quote that professor (Harry Morris) and the playwright he taught (some guy named Shakespeare) to this day.
I'm not saying this is how we should do it. I'm saying most of us are way overdoing it. In the process, we're inviting students to skip an assignment here or there or to perform half-heartedly on a few knowing they can make it up with 5 or 6 other quizzes. Also, we've created a system -- improved just a tad in the last 2 years -- where underachivers can goof most of the quarter, then apply themselves on a ludicrously weighted 9-weeks exam and come out looking pretty dang good.
Or do we have so many grades because parents think we should give their kids more opportunities to succeed, to prove they are B or A students? Is that what giving a lot of grades really does? No.
Is this not partly the reason even somewhat motivated students don't turn in work?
Another reason (I know this is hastily written, but I have a bunch of quizzes to get to) is that they aren't convinced it's worth their time to do it. If we're going to assign it and spend our precious weekends grading it, we have to sell it. We have to explicitly tell them why it isn't busy work and why it helps accomplish the goals of our class and why we think it's good for them.
And if it is busy work? Man! Are you out of your mind? Who has time to grade that stuff?!
So anyway. Once we all work through questions like the ones posed above, then we might be ready to consider overhauling a grading system and it might or might not include a Zero Grade Policy.