How Do You Feel About a No-Zero Policy for Student Assignments?

Let's face it: failing is a part of life. It's a fact many learn as children. But over the past few years schools across the country have adopted no-zero policies for assignments and even tests; in other words, students simply can't fail. What kind of message does this send to our kids?

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Try, Try Again

In February 2012, schools in Lowndes County, Georgia became the most recent to implement a no-zero policy for third- to eighth-graders. Other school districts, including some in Ohio and Nevada, have been under the no-zero rule for the last couple of years.

Under this new policy, students will have the opportunity to take tests over and redo their assignments until they achieve a passing grade. And if they don't do the assignments at all, they'll get an 'Incomplete' instead of a zero.

Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal Constitution asked what could be on the minds of many: 'How else do adolescents learn that there are consequences for failure to comply with assignments?' Basically: how will children learn to fail?

Skirting Responsibility

Does a no-zero policy pretty much free students from responsibility?

Yes, say opponents to the rule. And it could have effects later: in college, in jobs and in life in general. Kids who learn that they can't fail may simply stop trying hard, knowing that there's little teachers can do if they don't do the work, or don't apply themselves to the work they do turn in.

Many fear that students could simply learn how to manipulate such a system. They'll learn the 'easy way out'. It's a mentality that could follow them throughout their lives.

Kimberly Athey of the Warren County School Board in Nevada told in March 2011: 'If we are not graduating people who have learned what they are supposed to have learned so they can go on to get a job or go on to higher education, then we are not doing our jobs.'

Helping Kids Get Engaged

On the other hand, supporters of no-zero policies say that in many cases kids might become more engaged in learning if they are forced to go over the material again until they receive a passing grade. In short, it gives them a chance to succeed.

Elementary curriculum consultant Sally Hansen of Omaha Public Schools told in March 2010: 'The research did show that if a child is given a chance to bring those grades up by not having a zero, and being able to bring a grade up from a 50 or from a 65, they are more likely to be engaged in learning.'

Others feel that a no-zero policy holds students more accountable for their work. A zero, some believe, sort of lets kids 'off the hook'. Forcing them to redo assignments makes them work harder to learn than simply letting them fail.

No 'Incompletes' in Life

While it's true that this approach might work for some kids, can it work for all? Is it possible that many kids could become more bored and resentful over having to relearn material? And could they, as some believe, manipulate the system?

Such a policy, I think, could be most damaging for high school students. These are the kids on the brink of entering college or the workforce. If they're not prepared for failure then, will they ever be? If schools feel the need to adopt such a policy, perhaps it would work best for younger students but should possibly be phased out in later grades.

Kids eventually need to learn that failing to do what you're supposed to do has consequences: failing to pay the electric bill, for instance, will lead to the power company shutting off the utility, or failing to pay the mortgage will eventually lead to foreclosure. There is simply no such thing as an 'incomplete' in the world beyond school.

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