Editorial: Assessing zero

June 12, 2012
Jonathan Teghtmeyer

When an Edmonton teacher went public after being (in his words) suspended for giving students a mark of zero, the public outcry was immediate and overwhelming.

CBC Radio Edmonton broke the story on May 31 and an article posted to CBC’s website received 1,282 comments before commenting was closed. A poll posted the same day to the Edmonton Journal website asked: “Should high school students get a zero on an assignment if they fail to do it?” More than 12,480 people responded, of whom 97 per cent said yes. One reporter told me she could not recall the last time she had received so much correspondence about a single news story.

The general sentiment of the public outcry focuses on the idea that giving students a zero for missed assignments is an appropriate ­consequence that holds students accountable.

This past week, at a family barbecue and in my conversations with friends and colleagues, the topic of zero dominated the discussions. No doubt school staff rooms across Alberta were also abuzz with talk; however, I know that teachers’ conversations were not as one-sided as they appeared to be in the public domain and media.

On the topic of a no-zero policy, I suspect that teachers are divided in their views. A vigorous professional debate on the merits and drawbacks of such a policy is warranted. Although the Alberta Teachers’ Association does not have a specific policy on the issue, other Association policies speak to the primacy of teachers in directing assessment and evaluation. And because teachers are trained professionals who live in the world of student assessment and motivation every day, they are bound to have a more complex understanding of the issue than the general public. It is good that citizens care about the professional work of teachers, but we should be cautious not to defer professional policy decisions to popular opinion.

The public’s eagerness to comment on teachers and education stems from people’s frame of reference for teaching as compared to other professions. For example, most adults have spent 200 days per year and at least 5 hours per day in the care of a teacher for 12 years. No other profession offers this kind of daily contact and exposure.

Regardless, it is clear from the debate that the public does not have a complete understanding of teachers’ professional work. Teachers think critically about assessment and discuss it with their colleagues and with education experts. Teachers debate the meaning of assessment, the relationship between assessment and public assurance, the effects of standardization, the appropriate role of summative assessment, gender bias, online reporting and so on.

As the end of June approaches and you prepare your students’ report cards, there is probably no better time to explain to parents the ­theoretical underpinnings of your strategies and how your ­assessments are devised. Such information helps parents understand assessment and guides them in focusing their children on what needs to be ­improved—which, after all, is the purpose of assessment.

Have a great summer!

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.