Raleigh-Based African American Parent Advocacy Group Calls for an End to Zero Grades in Wake County Public School System (WCPSS)

The Raleigh-based Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children (CCCAAC) has called for an end to the practice of giving students ‘zero’ grades in Wake County Public Schools. District leaders had considered a policy that would have prohibited teachers from giving students zeros as grades, clinic setting 50 as the lowest scores students could earn, check but teachers’ vocal opposition to the proposed policy changed resulted in district officials amending the policy proposal to encourage rather than dictate changes in teachers’ grading practices. The revised proposal would not ban Wake teachers from giving students zeros as grades. It does call on schools to develop school-level policies on grading–rather than the development of a single grading policy for all schools which the initial proposal included. But the CCCAAC is not happy about Wake officials’ change in direction. The group wants a single policy on grading for all Wake schools. The group was supportive of the earlier district proposal setting 50 as a low score for students.

This topic is an incredibly important one, purchase but a pretty sensitive one as well. In theory, grades are supposed to be a reflection of how well a student has mastered the course content. In reality, however, grades might measure some of students’ content mastery, but grades also include other stuff. For example, a middle school student told me just last week that she loses points on her course grades because of her behavior infractions. While teaching her to behave appropriately in class is very important, it has nothing to do with the degree to which she has mastered course content. Similarly, I have known teachers to award bonus points to students for things like bringing canned goods for a Thanksgiving food drive, returning signed permissions slips the following day, or for good classroom behavior.

The recognition that so much other stuff is included in students’ grades has led to some schools and districts, including elementary programs in WCPSS,  adopting standards-based grading approaches. With standards-based grading, that other stuff is taken out of students’ grades, and teachers are left to evaluate only students’ mastery of content standards in mathematics, language arts, science, social studies, etc. In my opinion, movement to standards-based grading approaches is promising as it requires that teachers be much more intentional about teaching specific standards/skills and then much more intentional about how students’ learning is assessed/graded.

Regarding CCCAAC’s call for an end to zeros given as grades, I can understand the parents’ desire for fairness across the district; and I can appreciate the parents not wanting students accumulating zeros and digging a hole for themselves that they are unable to dig out of. But the bigger and I would argue more important issue is whether or not a student is mastering course content, and to what extent their grades serve as measures of that mastery. I don’t believe accumulating zeros or 50s is particularly helpful to students, parents, or teachers. Does a zero grade mean that a student has mastered absolutely none of the required content? Possibly, but probably not. Would a score of 50 mean that a student has mastered 50% of the required course content? Probably not. In the end, neither policy/practice is really ideal, because neither policy/practice would likely result in grades being any more meaningful than they are currently.

I favor a standards-based grading approach which provides feedback to the student and the parent on the specific area(s) where the student has mastered or is making progress toward mastering standards. With the current practice of awarding zeros or the CCCAAC-endorsed practice of awarding 50s, neither the student nor the parent can use the number grade as a measure of what the student knows of does not know. What I am suggesting is pretty similar to what is already in place in elementary schools in WCPSS. Dr. Gerry Swan and Dr. Thomas Guskey, both at the University of Kentucky, are doing some really interesting work with standards-based grading in Kentucky school districts. For anyone interested in learning more, I suggest their work as a starting place.

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