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Zeros don’t work; never have, never will!  While a good number of schools/districts have already addressed this issue through a shift in policy or practice, two questions come to mind: (1) Why hasn’t everyone, and (2) What took us so long?  For some of us, our reaction to this post would be, “Ya we know that already. We did ‘no zeros’ three years ago!” However, the knowing-doing gap is still alive and well in some places which is why I think the topic is still important to discuss.

Now before I go on about zeros, let me first tell you 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 the use of “0”…not that I was assigned any zeros in High School! The bottom-line for me is that I have used "0" enough to know it doesn't work and I will never be convinced that it does.

What I’m talking about is the practice of assigning “0” for work that has not been handed in.  Assigning “0” for work not handed is arbitrary and mathematically invalid; most mathematicians would consider “0” an outlier score that sits so far from the cluster than it is an anomaly. Here are the issues with “0”:

It’s not accurate: In most cases, “0” reflects what the student hasn’t done, not what the student knows.  We’re not talking about the earned “0” where the student completed all of the work (that’s a whole different issue).

It’s entirely random: Let’s break this down for a moment and really call “0” for what it is.  What we’re doing is randomly assigning a score to student work that we have not laid eyes on.  Why not 4? How about 13? Maybe 51?  Each of those is no less accurate; they’re random scores assigned to work we haven’t laid eyes on.  The reason some of us choose “0” is we can’t give negatives!

It skews the average: Now, I’m not a fan of using the mean average to determine students’ grades, but if you are currently using the mean average you have know that “0” is explosive to any gradebook.  Not to mention the fact that there are 3 kinds of averages – mean, median, mode – all of which are problematic.  Finding the mean average is the most accurate method, however, the results are greatly skewed by outlier scores…like “0”

It’s Mean! Tom Guskey writes:

Many teachers see zeros as the ultimate grading weapon. They use zeros for not putting froth the adequate effort or for failing to demonstrate appropriate responsibility…Some teachers recognize that assigning zeros punishes students academically for behavioral infractions; nevertheless, most believe that such punishment is deserved.

I wouldn’t necessarily say most, but possibly many.

It holds students LESS Accountable! Yes, you heard me, LESS accountable.  The biggest myth about zeros is that it holds students more accountable but I beg to differ.  Ask any teacher which portions of the learning in their subjects are optional and he/she would likely answer none. Now imagine I’m a student in your class and I don’t feel like finishing my History project so you decide to assign me a zero to hold me ‘accountable.’  Let’s now imagine that as a result of the “0”, my grade in the class goes from a 79% to a 74%. If I am satisfied with my new level of achievement you will never get that History project from me; you have made the project optional!  What more can you do? You’ve already zeroed me down to a 74%, I’m okay with it, so why would I do the project?

If I’m playing the odds, I can also build up enough credit throughout the course and then begin to opt out of any learning you put in front of me.  I can “0” my way from mid-April to the end of the class; if I’m still passing you will never get that work from me. Even if I’m not passing, I probably won’t do the work

There is no empirical support. Oh by the way, there is no research that supports the use of zero as a best practice for what it is intended; it doesn’t produce the desired result.  You’d think that after all of these years (decades) of zero being used, someone might have researched its effectiveness.  Actually they have…it doesn’t work!

So…what should you do instead?  Most agree that an “I” or “Incomplete” is more appropriate because it is the most accurate.  If I am running a marathon and severely twist my ankle at mile 19 (to the point where I can’t finish the race) what is my time for the marathon?  That’s right, I don’t have a time. When they publish the results in the local paper the next morning beside my name it will say D.N.F. (Did Not Finish).  What they won’t do is come up with some prorated time based upon my first 19 miles and combine it with my deceleration speed to ‘accurately’ project the time I would have had.

Vast majority of teachers I’ve worked with say students are held more accountable by using the “I” for the missing assignments.  More work is being completed by students and parents are very supportive of this practice.  Obviously there needs to be a new routine or system behind this practice, but by-in-large teachers are having more success at having students complete the required work. The threat of a low-grade is not a motivator; we won’t zero students down to an academic epiphany.  More often than not the zeros, and the resulting lower grades, move kids to a place of hopelessness where they would rather give up than try.

They don’t work; never have, never will!


(Originally posted on February 17, 2011 at

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