Zeros don’t work; never have, never will! While a good number of schools/districts have already addressed this issue through a shift in policies and practices, the knowing-doing gap is still alive and well. No topic exemplifies the emotional nature of grading discussions quite like a discussion about using zeros. What’s unfortunate is that these discussions are often isolated to questions about student responsibility and accountability, and while those are important issues to be addressed, the resulting inaccuracy of what ultimately gets reported to parents gets lost in the shuffle. Discussions about zeros are less about letting students off the hook and more about the accuracy of the grades teachers report.
Now before we get into the specifics about zeros, let me first confess that, early in my career, I was the zero guy. Like many of you, having received no instruction on sound grading in my teacher prep program, I started by doing what was done to me, including using zeros for work that wasn’t submitted. In my first five years of teaching especially, I was the epitome of a punitive grader. I used zeros, penalties, and any other traditional practice that served to punish students for not following through. Not only that, I felt justified in doing it; I thought it was what I was supposed to do. I confess this for two reasons. First, I know what it is like to be fully invested in using punitive grading practices. Second, I know what it takes (and how challenging it can be) to move away from these practices.
Here are some of the specific issues with using zeros in today’s context:
It’s inaccurate: In most cases, a zero reflects what the student hasn’t done, not what the student knows or understands. This is not about the earned zero where the student completed all of the work but failed to answer any questions correctly or submit any semblance of a correct response; that’s a different issue. Again, what gets lost in all of the conversations about responsibility is how a zero has a devastating effect on a gradebook and ultimately renders the student’s final grade as inaccurate as it relates to a student’s true understanding of the material at hand.
It’s random: Let’s break this practice down and call it out for what it really is. When using zero for work not submitted, teachers randomly assign a score to work they have not laid eyes on. How precise is that? With all of the heavy-lifting teachers do in establishing performance criteria, levels of proficiency, and the calibration of inferences with each standard, it is surprising that teachers would do something so imprecise and arbitrary. Now, as long as we’re randomly choosing numbers, why not 4? Maybe 13? How about 59? Each of those options is no less accurate; they’re random scores assigned to work that hasn’t been seen.
It annihilates the average: This is not an endorsement of using the mean average to determine students’ grades, but teachers who currently use the mean average must realize that zero is explosive to a gradebook. The most lethal combination in any gradebook is an outlier score paired with mean averaging. While a valid mathematical calculation, mean averaging doesn’t always yield useful information; the determination of grades is skewed when a meaningless average is the result. If LeBron James walked into a room with three teachers, the mean average salary in the room would be $16 million per year. As accurate as that mean average calculation is, the resulting information in no way gives a clear representation of the financial situation amongst the four individuals in the room; zero has the same impact only on the opposite end of the spectrum. As well, consider this: a student who begins with a zero would have to earn 70% 140 times in order to earn a 70 (69.5% to be precise) as an overall grade. It’s not difficult to see why many of students are inclined to give up once a zero has been inserted into their gradebook.
It’s mean! Not only are there statistical considerations regarding zero, there are also emotional considerations too. Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule, so while a few students may be motivated by lower grades, most are not. Using zero is a choice, one I made early in my career, one some teachers currently make, and one we can all move away from. As Tom Guskey writes:
“Teachers also use zeros as instruments of control. In most instances, teachers have little direct influence over the privileges that students most value or the punishments they most fear…But teachers do control grades, and grades can indirectly influence those privileges and punishments. A low grade often prompts parents to enforce punishments that are more persuasive and more compelling to students than those that a teacher can enforce.” (Guskey, 2004)
Too cynical? Possibly. However, it is also naïve to think that teachers don’t know what the residual effect of a zero will be beyond the gradebook. Nothing gets parents’ attention quite like a zero and a subsequent low grade. While not every single teacher approaches the zero in this calculated a fashion, collectively we know exactly what we’re doing.
It holds students less accountable! The biggest myth about zeros is that it holds students more accountable. First, ask teachers which portions of the learning in their subjects are optional and they will undoubtedly answer, “none of it.” Now imagine a student is assigned a zero to be held accountable for not submitting an assignment. Let’s imagine that the zero lowers the student’s grade from a 79% to a 74%. Now what? If the student is satisfied with the new level of achievement (in this case a 74) the teacher will never get the work from the student; in essence, the assignment was rendered optional. That’s not accountability. If the assignment is mandatory then the student should be expected to complete the work regardless of the timing, otherwise we’re emphasizing when a student learns over if they learn.
It’s not teaching anything. Punishing irresponsibility does not teach responsibility. Somewhere along the way we’ve collectively become convinced that punishing the absence of a skill will produce the skill. That’s not teaching. If students don’t know how to write an argumentative paper, we teach them; if students can’t add fractions, we teach them. If students struggle to meet deadlines or complete work, we need to teach them. The only thing that teaches a student how to be responsible is when someone – likely an adult – actually teaches them how to be responsible. Claiming to be teaching responsibility is a hollow claim when the only action is to punish irresponsibility. If we want responsibility, we need to teach it.
There is no research support. There is no research that supports the use of low grades as effective punishments or universal motivators. Again, there are always exceptions to the rules, but those students are just that – exceptions. It is true that the research on standards-based grading is in its infancy (Brookhart, 2013), but traditional grading has been around for decades and there is little evidence that it produces the desired results. With all who’ve used zeros (both past and present) you’d think someone would have made it their business to validate it as a best practice through clinical research. There is simply no evidence that using zeros teaches students the lessons of responsibility or holds them accountable (Kohn, 1993; Guskey, 2004; O’Connor, 2011)
So, what should be done instead? Most agree that an “I” or “Incomplete” is more appropriate because it is the most accurate. If a marathon runner severely twists her ankle at mile 19 and can’t finish the race, what is her time? Exactly, she doesn’t have a time. When the results are published in the local paper the next morning, beside her name it will read DNF (Did Not Finish). There is no prorated or best-guess time. All that is reported is what’s accurate; the runner did not finish. In our gradebooks, when a student hasn’t submitted a required assignment necessary to determine an accurate grade then the student doesn’t have a grade.
The vast majority of teachers I’ve worked with say students are held more accountable by using the “I” for missing assignments. They’ve seen more work being completed and parents being more supportive of this practice. The threat of a low-grade is not a motivator; we will never zero students down to an academic epiphany. Zeros don’t work; never have, never will.
Brookhart, S. (2013b). Grading. In J. McMillan (Ed.), Sage Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment (pp. 257–271). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.
Guskey, T.R. (2004). Zero alternatives. Principal Leadership, 5(2), 49-53.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentives plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
O’Connor, K. (2011). A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades with DVD (2nd ed.). Portland, OR: Pearson Assessment Training Institute.