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'Catastrophe awards' and zero grades: Teachers voice their frustrations

The dunce cap may be history, but one teacher has found a tool to single out underperforming children: the "catastrophe" award.

A Grade 3 student in Arizona was given the unusual end-of-year award – for having the most excuses for not having her homework done. The card was given out in front of the whole class, and sparked widespread laughter.

The child and her parents have appeared on a news program to defend the girl's homework-doing capabilities, complete with a folder full of completed assignments.

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"I think it's cruel and no child should be given an award like this, said Christina Garcia, the girl's mother. "It's disturbing."

At the other end of the spectrum this week is an Edmonton teacher who has allegedly been suspended after giving out the taboo grade of zero for incomplete or missing assignments or exams.

Lynden Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, disagrees with the school's "no-zero" policy, according to the CBC.

"It's a way of pushing kids through even though they're not actually doing the work," he said.

Teachers "were told to no longer give zeros. Instead an uncompleted test or assignment would be marked with a comment. The student's mark would then be based on whatever work is done," reports the CBC.

Mr. Dorval said that the practice gives kids the impression that they aren't accountable for their actions.

A quick look at the school's policy on its website reveals a number of non-zero descriptors teachers may use on assignments, including NC (Not Completed), NHI (Not Handed In), CNA (Chose Not to Attempt) and, interestingly, ELT (Elite Athlete).

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"If a student does not submit enough material to provide an accurate description of his or her achievement, the progress report may indicate 'unable to evaluate.' Such a code note indicates that the teacher is unable to assess the student's progress in the course," reads a document called the Assessment, Grading and Reporting Practice 2011-12.

At least some of the students side with the teacher. "He's a good teacher from what I hear so why stop that just for giving out zeroes to people who don't complete work?" Cassandra Gregory said to CTV.

The Edmonton Public School said Mr. Dorval was not suspended over the zero-grade policy, reportedly calling the case "a staff discipline issue." While the reason for the suspension may be more complicated that Mr. Dorval is suggesting, the question of whether students should be given a zero at all is compelling.

So, are catastrophe awards or grades of zero ever appropriate?

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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