Does A No-Zero Grading Policy Make Zero Sense?

no-zero grading policy
no-zero grading policy_tired student

“The grade you get is the grade you earned!” That is a phrase that in some form or another has been uttered by millions of teachers over the years. Teachers don’t “give grades”, students earn them. But that is not necessarily the case anymore. Many school districts have instituted what’s known as a “No-Zero” grading policy. In many cases, that means the lowest score you can get on any assignment or report card is a 50, even if a student does absolutely no work. It’s sparked controversy from teachers, parents and administrators alike, and it may be here to stay.

What’s in a grade?

Supporters of the policy say that zeroes can artificially bring down a student’s grades and not accurately reflect how much information they are retaining. In a class where only a few assignment are given per quarter, one bad grade can be the difference between passing and failing. Rounding up those grades to a 50 still gives students an “F”, but at least it’s a redeemable “F” and they have a chance to pass the class.

The flip side of that argument, however, is that schools are essentially rewarding students who refuse to complete assignments or who put no effort into them at all. A student may have only done 25% of the work but ends up with a 50 anyway, giving them 25 extra bonus points. The math is even more problematic for districts that enforce a minimum grade of 50 on report cards. A student who has done nothing for 3 straight quarters and gets three 50’s, can get an “A” in the 4th quarter and pass for the year. Even worse: a student who manages to get an “A” first quarter, doesn’t have to do any work for the rest of the year and will still pass. What message is that sending to students?

“How is this making students college and career ready when we are not teaching the basic skills of being timely with your work?”

-Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association

What lessons are we trying to teach?

In most cases, a student is given a zero when an assignment isn’t handed in at all. Does that mean they know 0% of the material? Likely not. Instead, the zero is used as a disciplinary tactic to get students to do their work. Supporters of “No-Zero” grading say punishing students in the gradebook for not doing their work is like taking points off for being out of dress code or not following the rules. Meanwhile, defenders of the zero say it holds students accountable for their own actions. Personal responsibility is a skill that is sorely needed in society today, and giving students credit for something they didn’t do sends the wrong message. 

no-zero grading policy, kid rubbing his eyes doing homework

Where’s the Pride?

A lot of the discussion surrounding the infamous zero centers around how it makes students feel. Zeroes make kids feel bad about themselves and lower their morale. Add in the fact that their grade may be irreparably harmed and you have a student with serious self-esteem issues. But whatever happened to the pride a student gets from earning their passing grades? When students work hard and reach their goals, isn’t that a morale booster? And isn’t that what we should be striving to teach them?

It begs the question: Whose fault is it that the zero is there in the first place? Was the assignment not turned in because the student is lazy and simply not doing their work? Or are there extenuating circumstances at home or in that student’s personal life preventing them from doing their work? Every situation is different, which is why many teachers favor an approach that isn’t simply a blanket policy that applies across the board.

Creating a uniform policy is a one-size-fits-all approach that simply does not fit into every classroom and undermines our efforts to differentiate for our students’ needs.” 

Natalie Barnes, Math teacher

Just because you make it nearly impossible for someone to fail, that doesn’t mean they deserved to pass. Then again, if a student fails because of one missed assignment, did they really deserve to fail? Whether you believe in giving zeroes or not, the issue remains the same: we need to find a way to accurately measure student success while still holding them accountable for their actions. 

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David Rode

Dave is a middle school math teacher. He's also a musician, a community theater, dad to two amazing children, and he doesn't get a lot of sleep.

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