Eastern School board still giving cheaters a chance

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on August 29, 2012

Just in time for the release of a paper slamming no-zero marking policies, the Eastern School District of Newfoundland and Labrador appears to be standing firm on its own controversial approach.

The board came under fire from parents and teachers last year when a no-zero policy on cheating surfaced. In short, teachers had to give cheaters another chance rather than assigning a zero. In fact, teachers were forced to examine numerous alternatives before assigning any zeroes at all.

The policy elicited loud protest. Both parents and teachers complained that it encouraged laziness and apathy, failed to instill a sense of responsibility and discriminated against the majority of students who honestly completed their work.

This is all blindingly obvious, of course, but it leaves an important question dangling: what on Earth possesses boards and individual schools across Canada to adopt ludicrous no-zero policies?

Finding the source

Michael Zwaagstra tries to answer that in a paper published Monday by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

In “Zero Support for No-zero Polices,” Zwaagstra, a Manitoba teacher, researcher and columnist, looked at the growing controversy across Canada and evaluated the reasons for and against such bans.

He credits the suspension of a physics teacher in Edmonton for truly galvanizing the lobby against no-zero policies.

In May of this year, Lynden Dorval found himself forced out of the classroom after he decided to defy the policy against handing out zeroes.

“Public response to this issue has been overwhelmingly on Dorval’s side,” writes Zwaagstra. “Students rallied to his defence, teachers spoke out in support of his position and newspaper pages were filled with letters attacking the no-zero policy.”

What’s most revealing is Zwaagstra’s probe into the research that supposedly supports bans on zero grades.

In short, there is none.

The “positive” effect of keeping zeroes off the books is touted by only a handful of educational specialists. And these same researchers regularly use each others’ work as source material.

What’s most shocking is that when the circular references are traced back, there is rarely empirical evidence to support any of it.

Zwaagstra found it surprising that no objective analysis has been done, since there would be no shortage of data to evaluate it in the U.S. or Canada.

No change here?

Meanwhile, it appears the Eastern School District is determined not to take a harder line on cheating.

An Aug. 27, 2012 policy document on assessment and evaluation confirms zeroes may be assigned “in the absence of other evidence of learning.”

But that “other evidence” means teachers must jump through various hoops, including endless extensions, consultations and alternative evaluations.

Worse, a student cannot be penalized for a late assignment: “The practice of reducing grades as a punitive response to late assignments is not permitted, as such practice does not adhere to the overall intent of the assessment and evaluation policy.”

Thus, any student is free to hand in assignments on the last day of school with no regard for a teacher’s schedule or time management.

But the board’s provocative policy on cheating appears to be unchanged: “The overall grade

in the course/program remains incomplete until such time that an appropriate assessment is completed.”

Zwaagstra is confident the tide has turned against such regressive approaches to evaluation.

“Public opposition to no-zero policies shows no sign of subsiding,” he says.

Given the intransigence of so-called specialists who endorse this free-ride approach to grading, however, it’s important that parents and teachers remain vigilant.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.

Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pjackson_NL