Why zeros on student work are important


There is a huge push in educator Twitter toward replacing zeros with 50% so that a student’s grades are not irreparably harmed by a student’s organizational skills or immature sense of responsibility.  What disturbs me most that this push is (inadvertently?) sending the message that teachers who assign zeros are not progressive, rather, punitive in their approach to their students.  That boils down to an attack on core values; and I think another perspective needs to be heard.  I argue here that replacing zeros with 50% is a very bad idea and offer my opinion on what would be much better for the students.

From a math perspective, zero is not equivalent to 50%, rather, 1/2 is equivalent to 50%. We should not embed students with false ideas about math, especially when it involves mathematical relationships (math sense).  Zeros offer real-life opportunities for learning how numbers affect “average.”  Yes, a zero has a huge impact.  A zero in the average seems mean (pun intended) but it doesn’t have to end there, as I explain below.  Students remember things when there is emotional investment.  What will a student remember if zero becomes 50% in real life?

From a character perspective, teachers should be developing a sense of fairness. Students should not be led to believe it is okay for them to heap extra work on someone else’s plate for their own convenience.  Lateness frequently creates extra work for someone else.  Timeliness shows respect for other peoples’ time.  Time is a non-renewable resource.  When we take time away from others, we are stealing something from them they can never replace.

Secondly from a character perspective, dependability is a habit that is mostly learned. Students who learn self-regulation such that they are dependable will likely achieve favorable status among those who lead them and are led by them.  Dependability can earn privileges.

Procrastination is often linked to self-gratification.  One does not have to look far to find people who have difficulty telling themselves, “No.”  Those who are unable to delay their rewards find themselves enslaved to feeding feelings and constant impulses.  Neuroscience explains the perils of feeding feelings that go against our best interests and the benefits of re-wiring neurological responses. The discipline of prioritizing, over-riding feelings, and following through frees us from settling for less than the best.

For those who would argue that grades should reflect what a student learns, I would ask, “Is what we know what is most important?”  or “Who cares what we know if our character is faulty?”  Quantitatively evaluating work habits makes sense when considering the whole child.


Most of us these days have so many tasks demanding our attention that we have to prioritize and select what actually gets accomplished.  We don’t always do what others want us to do. However, few will be impressed with a work ethic that side-steps clear responsibilities.  Making this distinction clear to students is an important part of developing strong character and opening the paths to opportunities that come with it. For that reason, I offer an alternative to grade inflation:  forgiveness.

Forgiveness and mercy are also character qualities we want to teach our children.  At risk of sounding too religious, forgiveness should follow “repentance.” Google that word, it’s more than “oops.”  Here’s how I work it out.  Kimmy gets a zero.  I communicate to her and her parents how this is currently affecting her grade. Then I explain what her grade would be if I drop the zero.  I promise to drop the zero later if Kimmy changes her work habits and learns what is expected.  With each zero, I can repeat the modified conversation so that student is encouraged to develop skills for success.  I explain more about my grading practices here.

These are my practices, observations, and opinions.  However, I also have a growth mindset and am willing to modify in a heartbeat when I learn something better.  Feel free to comment.





4 thoughts on “Why zeros on student work are important

  1. I agree with many of your points, but I would like to suggest to you that just based on the mathematics we teach (usually) in grade 5, zeros in a % scale are mathematically and ethically unacceptable. They are mathematically wrong because they go against what we teach about equal difference and ratio and measures of central tendency. They are ethically wrong because we must use in our grade books the mathematics we teach in our classrooms. A far better approach, however, is to simply record that evidence was not submitted, and when a grade has to be determined it is based on sufficient evidence having been provided by the student. If the student hasn’t provided sufficient evidence their grade is “I” for Insufficient Evidence.”


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