The Case Against Zeros: Why I Switched to a No Zero Grading Policy

The Case Against Zeros: Why I Switched to a No Zero Grading Policy

I tried something new and drastic his year. I got rid of all of the zeroes in my grade book, and I don’t think I am ever going back. Whether you are considering giving the zero a boot, or if you are staunchly in the camp of holding onto the zero forever, I encourage you to read on.

I’ve grappled with moving away from a standard grading scale for a few years now, but I was never able to set the ball into motion. I think the two biggest reasons that held me back for so long were held in long-standing, archaic reasons. First, the standard grading scale is the way that things have always been done, and secondly, in real life, you don’t get something for doing nothing.

Those are probably the two most prevalent for holding onto the beloved zero. And in all honesty, after switching to a no-zero policy, those two reasons are, quite frankly, garbage.

Why did I switch to a no-zero policy?

I should have switched years ago, but I wasn’t ready to do so. However, after returning to full, in-person instruction after more than a year of pandemic teaching and learning, I knew the time was right. Here are five reasons why I switched to a no-zero grading policy. At the end of the post, I’ll share what I switched to instead of a zero.

Mathematically Unjust

Mathematically, a zero just does not make sense on a standard grading scale. If an F is from 0-59%, and a D is 60-69%, and so on, the largest portion, nearly 60 percent, of the grading scale constitutes an F. If a student receives an A and a C on two assignments, and then does not turn in another equally weighted assignment, they then have a 56%, an F. That averaged grade of the three assignments does not accurately assess the student’s skills.

Grading Behavior

Similar to reducing a student’s score for turning in work late (and that is also another topic for later discussion), assigning a zero does not assess the students academically against the standards. Instead, it provides an academic grade for a behavior. And oftentimes, it is a behavior in which the student might not have total control. When a teacher places a zero in the grade book, it tells the student that the assignment is done and over with. Some students may no longer seek to complete the assignment, the student may lose out on an important learning opportunity, and the teacher does not get the opportunity to assess the student on that skill.

Decreases Motivation

Nothing kills a student’s motivation more than the feeling of hopelessness. When a student feels as if there is nothing they can do in your class to raise their grade, or even worse, nothing they can do to pass the class, they lose motivation. Why would a student even want to continue working and putting in the effort if they think it will be fruitless? And on the same token, is it even fair of us to ask a kid to sit, cooperate, and try when we, the adults, aren’t even working with them to provide another chance? As mentioned above, the zero grade assesses behavior and situations that might not be in the student’s control.

Harms students at greatest risk

Students do not want to fail. They do not want to have super Fs. Each new semester is a fresh start. However, just a few missing assignments can seem like an insurmountable challenge, one in which students cannot overcome. Just like how deducting points for late work grades behavior, so does applying a zero for missing work. Our students who are at the greatest risk are the ones more likely to have some missing assignments. So often, students are in positions in which they cannot control, and in many cases, we aren’t privy to information about our students that will best help us help them. Maybe our students weren’t able to complete an assignment because they had to watch their siblings while a parent was at work. Perhaps a student couldn’t complete the assignment at home because they didn’t have internet. Perhaps our students are juggling school and a part-time job to help make ends meet at home. Those reasons do not justify a zero. They justify understanding and compassion.

More punitive than motivational

Some may think that a big fat zero will motivate students to try harder and turn in future assignments, but the opposite is true. A zero in the grade book is more punitive than motivational. As with the example above, if a student has an A and a C on two assignments, their average is a B in the class. Throw in an equal amount of zeros into the mix, and suddenly, that B student is now an F student. The zero for the missing work is more of a punitive stance.

So, since I’ve laid out some of the important reasons for not giving zeros in the classroom, what did I choose to do in my classroom?

Last year during remote instruction, I had a 50% grading floor, meaning that my grading scale went from 50-100%, with 50-59% being an F, a 60-69% being a D, and so on. During remote instruction, I felt that was adequate. However, going into the new school year, I wanted to have a grade that established a distinct difference between not turning in anything and students turning in incomplete work. For this year, I chose a 40% grading floor, meaning that all of the missing assignments are marked as missing and entered in at 40% credit. When I explained this to my students, I explained that my grading scale is a 40-100% scale, with 40-59% being an F.

Through implementing this no zero policy for my grade book, I’ve found that students are more motivated to move out of the F range because they feel like it is more feasible. I’ve found that students are less stressed about circumstances out of their control because they know that one missing assignment won’t tank their grades. I’ve found that student-teacher relationships are stronger because they don’t view me as a wall, but rather a gateway to their success.

Sure, there are still a few kids who will inevitably fail each class. Those students who hover in the 40-46ish percent range, the ones who do not turn in work at all, will, unfortunately, still fail. However, toward the end of the school year, they will see their grade in the 40 percent range, rather than in the teens, and have hope if they want to try to earn a passing grade. I keep telling my students, even toward the end of the semester, that it is not too late and that they can still bring their grades up.

After switching to a no-zero grading policy, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to including zeros again.


The Case Against Zeros: Why I Switched to a No Zero Grading Policy


3 comments

  1. So what do you give kids that don't hand in work?

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  2. Yes, what do you do with kids who do not turn in assignments? If anyone is failing my class it is indeed bc of missing work. So, this is a discipline issue.

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  3. Like you, I was staunchly opposed to “handing out” grades, however my colleagues in the science department have been doing this for years so I gave it a try last year. I put a 45 in the gradebook for missing assignments. At first I thought students would blow off the work, but the opposite happened. Even students who previously struggled in English were so proud they could get a decent grade that they turned their work. They were less stressed and had a better attitude toward my class. The other teachers in English complained how several students are doing absolutely no work only a few weeks into the semester, but our senior English classes weren’t having that issue. I’d like to add that we are a Title 1 school with many struggling students. I used to have the mindset that I am teaching students responsibility and that in “real life” you don’t get something for nothing. I WAS WRONG. If students give up then I’ve taught them nothing and they leave with no more skillls than they came with. My job is to grow students, not crush them with an archaic social construct. The last couple years have taught us that old fashioned thinking does not move us forward.

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