Trying to Get Beyond Lynden Dorval Hero Worship in the “No Zeroes” Debate

Skip my class and don’t hand stuff in will ya?

Looks like Lynden Dorval won’t be back in the classroom next week. Dorval, a veteran Physics teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Shep High School, was suspended last school year for defying his school’s “no zeroes” grading policy. The case has received remarkable media attention, and highlighted yawning gaps between education “experts” and the “common sense” of the public[1].

When I completed my BEd degree in 2001, my program included a required assessment course, which I found interesting and useful. I was very surprised at the time to learn that assessment and evaluation — critical, core skills for teachers – had only become required curriculum in my teacher education program a few years before I had taken it. Without consistent professional learning in this area, it may well be a case of teachers not knowing what they don’t know. And indeed, it turns out that there’s lots wrong with traditional grading practices. The development of teachers’ knowledge and sophistication with respect to assessment and evaluation practices over the past couple of decades has been remarkable [2].

Media Accounts of “No Zeroes” Are Terrible, Okay?

It is not difficult to make the case that assessment and evaluation ought to be of central interest to education’s policy-makers. To this end, the growth of interest in and research related to “no zeroes” is a good thing. Or at least it might be if it were actually being brought to public engagement with any degree of intelligence. One would hope that Dorval’s “heroic campaign” [3] would serve as an opportunity to educate parents and the public about issues underlying grading practices. Important issues like whether teachers’ professional autonomy translates to unfair discrepancies in grading practices across classrooms and schools (It might; it might not.) Or about whether one grade can or should contain an evaluation of a student’s academic ability and work ethic (two separate issues). Or about whether it’s appropriate to use grades as carrots or sticks, and if so, when and how?

Alas such questions will never enter into the discussion because Dorval and our mass media have worked most effectively together to turn “No Zeroes” into a bizarre maudlin morality tale, in which alternative assessment practices are reduced to evil assaults on the good old days, when kids had a work ethic and their pappies whipped ‘em behind the woodshed.

As a counterpoint to this – well silliness, okay? – at least two authors have offered some solid critical engagement with “no zero” and other alternative assessment practices by examining the evidence for and against them. While the authors draw somewhat different conclusions, both do an excellent job of highlighting what media coverage has willfully ignored: namely that examination of empirical evidence on the topic of alternative assessments is distinct from the moral claims that underlie positions “for” or “against” it[4].

Most people don’t seem to make this distinction when they draw their conclusions about Mr. Dorval’s public stand. Perhaps they don’t feel the need to consider evidence if they are instead working with the assumption that there is some inherent link between zeroes and “goodness” on the one hand, and no-zeroes and “badness” on the other. The argument is therefore not about the effectiveness of “no zeroes;” it’s about morality. It goes something like this:

Premise: Zeroes (falling under what are generally known as “traditional grading practices”) promote responsibility, accountability, and life lessons that hard work will be rewarded.

(This is a flawed premise, presented without empirical evidence to support it.)[5]

Premise: “No zeroes” practices (a form of “alternative assessment”) promote the opposite of responsibility, accountability, and hard work.

(Also a flawed premise, lacking supporting evidence.)

Conclusion: Therefore Lynden Dorval is a folk-hero who is trying to save society from going to hell in a handbasket, and the policy makers who want to fire him want our kids to be slackers and heroin addicts.(Those liberal bleeding-heart bastards!)

(Flawed hyperbolic conclusion, drawn from flawed premises.)

I would argue  that it is this kind of thinking that’s rendered “no zeroes” – what ought to be public debate – into more of a public spectacle. Spectacles are entertaining for zealots and cynics alike. They inflame passions or at least pass the time. But they don’t educate. Which is why once Dorval is canned, the “Got Zero” t-shirts will be put away, the media will drop the story, and things will carry on as before.


Notes, References and Additional Rants

[1] I’m using the terms “common sense” and “expertise” loosely because neither tend to be wholly reliable. Common sense translates to “based on my experiences and those of my friends/family/kids.” Kinda flawed sampling there, but that’s what the public seems to go with. Experts are accused (rightfully in many cases) of being disconnected from the realities of implementation and practice. I see this as being a fair charge in the case in alternative assessment theories, which sound good “in theory” but are questionable in practice. This seems to be the position of many teachers, and I think it bears consideration.

[2] This is kind of a cool thing if you don’t already know this: “Assessment” and “evaluation” aren’t the same thing. Assessment refers to accurately and validly measuring what someone has learned. Evaluation refers to assigning a value to that assessment (for example a grade or a class ranking or a “don’t quit your day job”).

The difference may not sound important but it is: Assessment is a kind of “just the facts ma’am” process, so you actually aren’t judging a student when you say s/he “has mastered 70% of the material.” It’s just a statement of fact. It’s objective.

Evaluation, on the other hand, assigns worth to that learning. Is mastering 70% a good thing, or a bad thing or a so-so thing? We don’t know unless we know why the person is learning the stuff, how important it is, or whether it matters that the person has mastered more or less than other people doing the same thing. So evaluation, unlike assessment is subjective. Someone gets to decide if you are good or bad based on your performance, and you also have to think of the contexts of that decision.

Without going into further gory detail, this assessment/evaluation distinction has lots to do with what we consider “fair” when it comes to grading practices. Some of these issues are taken up in the literature that supports alternative assessment practices like “no zeroes.”

[3] I’m sorry I just gotta point out all the cheesy photos of Dorval looking all firm and principled (seriously, Sun Media freaking loves this guy), and supportive parent Cindy Sanche’s distribution of t-shirts stating “Got Zero? Real heroes give zeros.”

[4] Both Zwaagstra (2012) and Cariño, J. (2009) conclude that the empirical evidence, either for or against “no zeroes” is weak. Cariño makes the interesting case that alternative practices like “no zeroes” may have their place under certain conditions, but does not endorse a sweeping implementation. Zwaagstra is more partisan on this topic, but I think his review and assessment of the related research is thorough.

Carifio James (2009). A Critical Examination of Current Minimum Grading Policy Recommendations The High School Journal, 93 (1), 24-37 Other: 10.1353/hsj.0.0039

Zwaagstra,  (2012). Zero support for no-zero policies. Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Winnipeg, MB

[5] Keep in mind that there’s nothing too complicated about the phrase “empirical evidence.” It just means “did anybody actually go out and look around and collect some data and see if this stuff works? Theorizing, on the other hand, proposes ideas about what might work, or what might cause things to happen. Theories can be more or less valuable depending on how well they explain things, and how well they line up with the “empirical evidence” we can gather to support them.

More Reading

From The Edumonton Journal:



  1. In comments on the no zero issue I always look to see if parents are mentioned at all. Except for a sneering comment on “pappies” whipping kids behind the woodshed I note that your piece ignores parents. Students are our kids. Not the school board’s, not the educrats’, not the school’s. When parents are never consulted about issues like this it shouldn’t surprise anyone when we get angry when we learn of big changes to how our kids are being educated. As well, as an educational thinker, don’t you think this issue goes to the heart of what it means to be a teacher? It is clear from your piece you consider Mr. Dorval and no zero advocates traditionalists and “old school”. Yet isn’t it REALLY old school for a teacher with 30+ years of professional experience to have zero autonomy in the classroom? A professional who is told to implement a new assessment system with zero input? Isn’t it old school for a principal to have such unlimited authority that allows for no collegial discussion of a new system? Shut up and teach – not too progressive.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. You raise a couple of important issues. Parental involvement is a deal, for sure. I have worked with and spoken to many teachers in my studies, and many lament that parents are not more involved. By secondary school, for many reasons, it becomes harder to build good parent/teacher relationships, and as a result, I agree with you — parents end up lacking information. I think if I had a point, it is that the way the story is being covered by the media has oversimplified an important issue instead of helping to educate parents (and others) about it. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon practice in our newspapers.

      You also raise the issue of teacher autonomy. That has nothing to do with old school vs. progressive in my opinion — again I think it is the media drawing these sharp distinctions between “traditional” and “progressive” educators in unhelpful ways. Maybe my point there wasn’t clear.

      You are correct, I think, that no zeroes raises the issue of professional autonomy. But we have to consider: it’s easy to valorize Dorval for his “heroism” if you agree with him. But we’d have to extend professional autonomy to *all* teachers then — not just those we share our views with, right? How would you respond to a teacher who was exercising his or her professional autonomy in *supporting* no-zero practices? See what I mean? That’s where things get murky.

      The right balance should allow for teachers’ professional autonomy and discretion, but also provide some consistency and protection for students through centralized policies that ensure students are being assessed (and taught) equitably across schools and school districts. I don’t know what the “right balance” looks like — again, it’s tough to achieve. “No Zeroes” certainly highlights that tension.

  2. Peter: James Keegstra exercised “Professional Autonomy” … although I would argue that wasn’t the same as “good teaching”. If your kid is in a Physics class down the hall from mine, and scores 15% lower than mine (despite arguably having the same degree of mastery of the subject matter) because his teacher chose to exercise “Professional Autonomy” over how to keep and calculate grades, I imagine you might have a problem.

    As a parent and educator, I find it remarkable that calculated scores are seen to be vaguely reliable as a means of communicating subject area mastery, much less that we might view them as a means of controlling or coercing our children.

    For the record, my kids are in their 30s, have graduated University, and I am of a similar vintage as Mr Dorval. I don’t share his (or your) conviction that “old school” is the best way to teach or assess.

    However, despite not agreeing with you, I applaud you for voicing an opinion. Please keep in mind though, that is all it is. Just like mine.

  3. Hi Laura, my thoughts on the topic:
    – First, and I don’t mean to be rude, but if you graduated in 2001 and are now a doctoral student so you may have somewhat limited experience in the classroom where you are the actual teacher. Is this true? I am sure you have some years in the classroom but how many? I am guessing you may have walked through many classrooms, talked to and array of educational academics/consultants and administrators but you can not have been responsible for a classroom long enough to discount the first hand right-before-your-eyes evidence of all other in-the-field teachers. I have some first hand experience of implementing ‘no-zeros’ and can honestly tell you that I do not believe the policy works. My experience only of course, but every teacher I know disagrees with the policy. We are talking about a cumulative educational experience in the hundreds of years. I don’t think you should be quick to discount teachers, and the public that agrees with them, who are against this policy.
    – This policy may work for certain subjects at certain grade levels but as an across the board fix it fails. If I am wrong please point to the schools (from different socio-economic backgrounds) where this has been successfully implemented, show me the before and after scores and the testimonials of teachers of multiple different grade levels who have since been converted to this new philosophy. I am not above being wrong but I do not think that this evidence exists.
    – Taking effort out of the marks given on report cards and putting them on the side of a report card for parents to ignore accomplishes nothing. The drop-down, bland, pc, non offensive ‘needs to focus more’ type comments teachers are allowed to use will not bring in one more assignment or one more parent to interviews. But my god, drop genius Johnny to a 48% and you could not find a door strong enough to keep them out.
    – The general support given to no-zeros is along the lines of “we’ve read the research” and the unwashed masses are simply don’t know what they don’t know (Dunning–Kruger effect?). I have read Ken O’Connor book, and more importantly implemented in good faith the O’Connor philosophy. It is simply does not work as described. I have attended numerous workshops, in-services and the like on the topic. Never ever has evidence been provided that this philosophy works. I have never seen numbers to support this philosophy. More importantly, I have seen evidence to the contrary in my own classroom. Where is your evidence? People’s concerns seem legitimate to me. You have some critiques of the press and public reaction but you have not rebutted their logic of their concerns.
    – The vast majority of the supporters of the policy from central/school administrations and consultants on up the educational gray train have no skin in the game. They do not substantially deal with, nor have they the responsibility to deal with, the daily fallout this policy thinking inflicts. I cannot take serious the flippant drive-by comments of educational professionals outside the classroom. If they are wrong they scratch their chin, look ponderous for a second, say “that’s interesting” to a colleague over coffee and proceed to latch onto the next educational fad. The rest of us are left picking up the pieces, feeling the cumulative impact of students who have fallen further behind both academically and behaviorally.
    – I believe that research and evidence would back up more ho-hum assessment fixes such as consistent and proper implementation of in-depth item analyses (facility and discrimination statistics and the like) that are rarely used outside of final examinations.
    – Lastly, I have very little faith in education gurus to come to the right conclusions on significant issues such as ‘no-zeros’ when their track record is what it is. Two pet peeve examples to illustrate:
    1. Alberta Education gurus approved the publication of two of our current textbooks (Gr. 7: ‘Our Canada’ pg. 40 and Grade 12: ‘Perspectives on Ideology’ pg. 47) that inform students that people of the 13th (Our Canada) and 16th centuries (Perspectives on Ideology) believed the world was flat. No educated person from the 3rd century onwards ever thought this. [] How could they possibly get this wrong? Really, how could they possibly get this wrong? How could one of the most common historical myths of all time lay unfound and unfounded, undisturbed and unaddressed in these textbooks for so long? This is a mistake that substantially impairs the historical thinking of a generation of Albertans. No fad-of-the-day whiz-bang assessment will fix the problem.
    2. The United States NCLB act has been implemented and enacted by an army of PhDs. (Yes, I know many disagreed but that does not negate the point.) The world of education is littered with the carcases of failed policies defended by a firewall of academic credentials which front-line teachers have immediately recognized as flawed (and BTW, research later proved these teachers to be correct.)

    TL;DR It does not work. Academics are not always right. Other less sexy yet equally effective measures could be taken.


    • Thanks for taking the time to write!

      You are quite right that I had little classroom experience. I have, however, worked with teachers consistently throughout my graduate studies, and I listen carefully to what they have to say precisely because I know what I don’t know. You would not get any disagreement from me regarding the great gap between academia and practitioners. I don’t discount teachers’ perspectives on this issue at all, and I also find that most teachers are wary of “no zero” and related policies. My critique was largely aimed at media representations that give the impression that “giving zeroes” or “not giving zeroes” are polar opposites, when in fact the issue is much more complex. I am not critical of opposition to “no zeroes” but of the manner in which it is being represented.

      In my own bit of rooting around on the issue, I’d have to concur with the authors I cited: the philosophy of alternative grading practices sounds good on paper, but is untested. I am thus neither “for” nor “against” alternative grading practices. More research is needed. By extension, it seems to me that alternative assessment practices should be piloted and evaluated properly before (and indeed if at all) they are to be widely implemented.

      You sound like someone who has developed a great suspicion of “expertise” — gurus and academics. I find this interesting. To me, as someone on the “academic” side of the equation, this speaks to the failure of institutions like government ministries and universities to connect theory and policy to practice. i.e. I get it: I am suspicious of “gurus” too and certainly don’t want to be one!

    • This is certainly an extensive reply, though not necessarily well-argued.This is not to say that no good points are raised, despite the fact that it begins with the weakest of all these points in the form of the drive-by “you’re not a real teacher and can’t know what we know” and ends with some served up to knock down a straw man. The derogation of the blogger’s credentials is, unfortunately, typical of the anti-intellectual current amongst teachers, not to mentioned a betrayal of the writer’s ignorance of the nature of academia. As the host of the blog, Laura is far too magnanimous in her response.

      Setting aside most of the army of problems in your comment, I’ll just point to the key flaw, S-S, which comes early and is repeated often. You suggest that no-zero is bad because of a lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness, but fail to offer anything in the way of evidence that a “give zeros” policy achieves…what…exactly? The point of Laura’s blog is not to support no zero as a policy, but to raise questions about common sense understandings (including those of educators) and media treatment and, thus, to raise the level of discourse. Your reply seems to be an attempt to drag the conversation back into the mud.

  4. Fascinating comments, SS; while I share your suspicion of academics in general (not Laura in particular) and the ‘fad of the day’ approach that surrounds education, I am perhaps not so quick to discount the unproven and untested theories as you. I have been using a ‘no zeroes’ approach in my Physics classrooms for 5 years now, to great effect – more kids than ever are taking physics 30, my scores are up (both in-class and Diploma) consistently, including last year when several of my colleagues thought the exam was unfair. The big question is ‘Why?’ … why is this apparently working for me and not for others? It might be the kids (you don’t get a lot of slackers taking Physics 30 in the first place, and University-bound kids are appreciative of the fairness in this approach), but it might also be the implementation. In my experience, the fastest way to make one of these theories fail is to implement it poorly, something we are all capable of.

    Why do my kids think this approach is more ‘fair’ to them? Simple; they can do the math. They realize that one zero, for an 80% student, most often cannot be recovered from. (they would need 8 x 90% assignments, weighted equally, to nullify that mark and return them to their 80% average.

    They also realize the purpose of grading in my class – to accurately represent what they know about Physics, so they know that zeroes for work ethic or time-management (not doing their homework) have no place. Neither do bonus marks, or averaging in re-do’s, or most of the other elements of O’Connor’s work. We work to accumulate evidence that they are guilty of understanding what they are supposed to understand and able to do what they are supposed to be able to do. If they haven’t accumulated that evidence, they don’t get credit for it – period.

    Finally, they are now pretty critical consumers; they look at other teachers’ methods of grading and complain to them that their methodology is flawed, that some things are unfairly weighted, that they are unaware of the differences between assessment and evaluation, etc. That apparently causes some grief in the staff room on occasion, but I think the discourse is a healthy part of being a growing professional. At the end of the day, they ‘challenge’ my course by writing the Diploma; if they scored substantially lower on it than I awarded them, I would be worried, but that simply hasn’t been the case. Their marks are, in fact, more ‘accurate’ than ever, and therefore more ‘predictive’ of their future success.

    Do I have it right? No, I don’t think so, but I think I’m closer to finding that elusive truth, although I doubt I’ll do so before I retire. Honestly, I’m sort of abashed that I’m coming across these changes to my practice so late in my career – for 20+ years, I graded exactly as I had been graded in school, without really ever thinking about the paradigm I was operating under, and even now, when things are working so well, I’m not sure that others can implement what is working for me without changing so many other things in their practice. Sometimes, the whole point of experience is to make you capable enough to change.

    I do agree with Laura that the media messed this issue up with their sensationalistic approach, that most of the people writing in (including most teachers) don’t know enough about the whole picture to form coherent opinions, and mostly that talking about this issue is important and healthy. I also recognize and applaud your opinions and your conclusions; they are undoubtedly right for you at this point in your career, so I’m not discounting them, only asking you to keep questioning and looking for the answers.

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