When students turn in work, we are given an opportunity to assess their level of mastery on various standards or learning targets. If the work shows a poor level of mastery, the student has earned a low mastery score. Likewise, if a student shows a high level of mastery they have earned a high score. But what happens if a student doesn't turn in work at all? Or if they are absent on the day of the test? Or if they don't show up when their project is due?
This is easily among the top-three most common (and most controversial) questions that teachers have when they begin using a mastery-based gradebook. It is also an issue that should be considered carefully by each teacher, team of teachers, or school, because the approach taken can have a significant impact on how students read and interpret their progress reports.
There are essentially two ways to handle this within the gradebook: missing work can be entered as a numeric score (ie. zero or one) or it can be entered as a BLANK score. If a numeric score, such as zero is entered, the student's "mastery score" at the standard level and all higher levels will be brought down. If a blank score is used instead, missing work will not affect a student's mastery score. In this article, I will carefully examine the philosophical and practical implications of each approach - as well as a few variations.
Before I do so, it's worth re-stating part of our company philosophy: we almost always have an opinion... but we only force our opinions on our users when we absolutely have to.
What this means to you is that you (as a teacher or as a school) can choose to handle missing work in any way that you please. If you would like to enter a zero for each standard when assessments are missing, you are free to do so. This will consider it to be "evidence that the student has not mastered" the standard and will thus appropriately bring their overall score down. I believe strongly, however, that missing work is not necessarily evidence of a lack of mastery.
A Case for The Blank Value
To understand my case for the blank value, we need to first agree that mastery-based grading strives to be fundamentally different from traditional grading systems. If you haven't yet, you may wish to read my impassioned plea here: An Appeal to Switch to Mastery and Do it for Real.
My stance is that this grading revolution does not need to be backed up or hedged with attempts to make it fit within the framework of a traditional grading system. Entering zeros for missing work is just such a balk: it is an attempt to make sure that students are penalized for not completing work, and it sacrifices the quality of the data you have on what students know. Ask yourself this: if a student doesn't turn in a piece of work, what could it mean? Here are a few explanations off of the top of my head, along with the reasons why giving them a zero may be a counter-agent to this grading revolution (please forgive my generalizations):
- The student was lazy. By giving them a zero, you're doing what every other teacher EVER has done in the past (which has clearly not fixed the issue, as evidenced by the fact that they didn't turn in the assignment to you either). Seriously, though, this student knows full well how their lack of work effects their "grade," which they've clearly stopped caring about - or perhaps they know how to "game" the system so that they just barely pass. If you were to similarly REFUSE COURSE CREDIT until the student demonstrates level 2 (minimum) mastery on at least 2/3 of learning targets for your class, the student must suddenly think about which standards need to be mastered, seek out resources, and have to figure out a whole new system to "game" (during which time he might actually learn something). More work for you? Certainly. But there's no way around that in any world, if you want them to learn. By leaving the scores blank, you're bucking the system that hasn't worked on him for years.
- The student was sick, out for family reasons, or otherwise legitimately excused. Students in such cases often come back to see piles of work to catch up on. What if, instead of "doing all the work," the goal was to "learn all of the material"? Is that such a bad thing?
Furthermore, these reasons (and most others that I can think of) for missing work are more accurately described as "character" than as "academics," so why not be explicit about it? Our grading system supports multiple learning target types (explained more here) which are designed to separately track different types of learning goals (each of which can ultimately impact final grades).
For these reasons, our official "opinion" on this matter is the following:
- For any significant assessment that has a due date, align the assessment to a character standard (consider "I can complete work on time.") in addition to all relevant academic standards.
- When entering scores for a student that has not turned in the assessment, leave all academic targets blank (or use the missing assessment code for your school, which is usually an A, M, or U) and happily give the student a 0 on the character target.
- Then, work with your school to tweak the "weight" of the character standards so that it has an appropriate impact on their final grades as described in the article linked above.