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.
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 .
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”  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.
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.)
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
 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.
 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.”
 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.”
 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
 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.
From The Edumonton Journal: