No-Zero Grading Policy In Lowndes County Schools Require Retesting Opportunities For Failing Students (UPDATED)

Lowndes County Schools students in Georgia can relax a little -- 3rd through 8th graders can no longer receive zeros on assignments.

Under a new policy, report cards and progress reports will reflect a 60 out of 100 as the lowest grade, and teachers must offer students opportunities to retake tests and redo assignments until a passing grade is earned. The highest grade earned will be recorded, and teachers cannot record zeros, but can give an "incomplete" for work not turned in after insisting that the assignment be completed.

UPDATE 2/5/2012 11:00 A.M.: Lowndes County Schools Superintendent E. Steven Smith issued a statement Saturday. Read more below. The district has also posted the full text of the new guidelines online. See end of story to read the full guide.

The grading guide states that teachers should not be satisfied with issuing grades below a student's potential. According to The Valdosta Daily Times:

Essentially, even though a child has the potential to make an A, but doesn’t do the work and makes an F, that F should not count because the child is ostensibly smart enough to make the A.

"Assigning a grade of zero is equivalent to giving up on a child," Assistant Superintendent of Lowndes County Schools Troy Davis told The Valdosta Daily Times. "In education, the goal is to truly learn the material rather than simply earn a grade."

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has an excerpt from the new grade guide:

All children will be given the opportunity to learn and redo assignments, especially if a child makes a failing grade. Daily grades and test grades are included. If your child scores below 70 percent, the teacher is to re-teach the standard using a variety of resources, including technology. After the intervention/reteaching, the teacher is to reassess, and your child will receive the higher grade attained -- not an average of the two assessments or assignments. Reassessment is required once for all children scoring below 70 percent on assignments used for grading purposes. We want all children to improve. Even, a child scoring above 70 percent should be afforded an opportunity to improve as well. Additional reassessments for all children are at the discretion of the teacher and/or school administration.

Zeros are unacceptable. Teachers are to give your child an I (Incomplete) for work not turned in and are to insist that the assignment is completed. Zeros will not be used. If your child consistently scores below 70 percent, the teacher is to contact you and arrange for a conference. Teachers should seek help in determining what other resources are available to help your child, including -- but not limited to -- academic coaches, team leaders, grade chairs, counselors, administration, or the Response to Intervention process (i.e., classroom modifications, student support team, special education). Teachers are required to communicate often and well with you, and grades are expected to be posted to the Parent Portal grade book no less than once per week.

The debate around no-zero policies goes various ways. Supporters say it forces teachers to coach students through material until mastery, versus ending a lesson with a test, which a student may fail but not have an opportunity to thoroughly learn it at his own pace. Critics frustrated with these policies argue that it allows students to skirt responsibility and when a student simply refuses to commit to learning or complete assignments, there's little a teacher can do.

"How else do adolescents learn that there are consequences for failure to comply with assignments?" AJC's Maureen Downey writes. "In the classroom, it is a zero. In the workplace, it is termination."

In a statement issued Saturday, Lowndes County Schools Superintendent E. Steven Smith said much of the controversy surrounding the new grading guidelines stems from miscommunication and misunderstanding.

"Unfortunately, some persons have read into the guidelines concepts that do not exist," Smith said. "Students will not be given passing grades -- they must earn passing scores. Students will not be excused from doing assignments or taking tests. Students will be provided opportunities to improve. We understand that students learn at different rates, and our goal is for all students to master course content. In a school system that aspires to excellence every day, failure is not acceptable."

Smith notes in his statement that district officials could have presented the information more clearly to parents and gathered more community feedback before implementing the policy. The district will continue to assess and evaluate the new grading methods over the next year and a half.

A number of districts across the country have toyed with similar policies and have seen mixed results. Schools in Virginia have adopted variations of no-zero policies or guidelines in an effort to curb failure rates -- and increase student chances of graduation. Those in Tennessee are targeting lagging students, offering them more time and attention to make sure they don't receive zeros on assignments.

When school districts in Texas tried to adopt a no-zero policy, however, a judge ruled that schools are required to give students truthful grades under a 2009 state law. School officials fought back, arguing that prohibiting teachers from issuing low grades can help curb student discouragement and dropouts.

Lowndes County's new guidelines come as President Barack Obama called for a policy during his State of the Union address last week that requires students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18.

But such a policy can be expensive and difficult to implement, especially for recession-addled states.

"The inattention to dropouts in a lot of states is shocking," Andy Rotherham, an education consultant and former Clinton education advisor told HuffPost last week.

Still, the question remains: Can a no-zero policy accurately, fairly and effectively improve learning and keep students in school?