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"0" As a Grade

"0" As a Grade

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In looking at my final gradebook, I'm left wondering about an old dilemma. Should a student who has not turned in an assignment receive a "0" as a grade (when using a traditional 100-pt scale)? Rick Wormelli, author of "Fair Isn't Always Equal," recommends entering a high, but failing, score as not to disadvantage students with such an "anchor" grade pulling them down. I know some teachers who don't enter a grade at all and just look at what they have gotten to determine what the student knows. What are everyone's thoughts here? What do you do in this situation? And perhaps more importantly, what do you believe your grade represents?

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Ann Hyde's picture
Ann Hyde
Special Ed English teacher, Anchorage, Alaska

I do have students who chose not to complete assignments. I can't "make" them do them, and they tell me that very clearly. I tell them that they are absolutely correct; I cannot force them to do the assignments, but their choice is then to take a zero. I make a note if they absolutely refuse, and let their parents/guardians know. I also accept most assignments up until the end of each quarter for full points. My room is open before and after school, and during lunch, and I offer to work with kids on an individual basis at all of those times. There is no confrontation in the classroom because all that does is reinforce the decision to skip the assignment. In almost all cases, each student will choose to complete the assignment a little late, at which point I accept them, mark them as late, without a penalty, and assess the assignments. I also let kids redo assignments as often as they like to improve scores. Extra credit opportunities exist, but instead of adding each to the gradebook as they come up, I collect them for the quarter, and then add the extra points to assignments where they might need a little boost.

I do work really hard to make sure kids have a variety of assignments; we do traditional worksheets, art projects, technology projects, oral assignments, and I've had kids who have chosen to present via music, puppets or dolls, and even a Renn Fair sword battle (for a Romeo/Juliet demonstration of stage fighting). One of my students even made spiced peaches for a Holes assignment. This lets kids show what they know in non-traditional projects.

I do have some students who have situations which prevent them from doing some of the assignments; we discuss which ones we can excuse, and which ones must be completed. I also offer alternatives if I come across parental objections to ANYTHING.

Ryan Reed's picture
Ryan Reed
7/8th Grade Social Studies Teacher in Maine

I agree with many of the comments I've seen here and on Facebook (78 comments and still going!) about how the 0-100 system is antiquated and should be done away with (something my district is working towards). However, so long as it remains in place many of us MUST still work with it. So long as we don't have a standards-based system, and separate "Academic" and "Effort" grades, we are left (and sometimes instructed) to combine them into one overall marker of a students year-long achievement.

And there is something to be said for the lesson learned from failing. My students have come to loathe the fact that I expect them to revise and resubmit their work, giving them time in class to do so (like I do for nearly every assignment I give). However, if a student still doesn't do their work, despite being in an open, supportive atmosphere that encourages them to try, it does feel like "rewarding" them with anything other than a zero. I give students credit most of the time for simple assignments just for attempting to do what I asked. But to not even try? Immovable object, meet unstoppable force.

Tina Read's picture
Tina Read
Middle School Tech Ed from MD

I agree with the "wrong question" comment. As a first year teacher I've been giving zeros but it didn't seem right. I intrigued to read the philosophy. I believe the right question is "What did the student learn?" So a zero is the right way to express a missing grade but it should be pursued to address the reason for the missing grade.

Lynne Smith's picture

I teach in a high school so my opinion is filtered through that lens. If we don't give them a zero when it is merited, it gives them no reality in the area of cause and effect. I believe that we all need to learn that the priorities we set and the choices we make determine where we will go. Years ago, our school district had a policy that no student could earn a grade less than 60% on the report card for the first marking period and no less than 50% for the second. We had students who did NOTHING and were content with getting the 60 and 50. Then when the doubled their efforts in the third quarter, they had no success because they had not learned anything during the other two quarters. Some of them actually brought up grades...because they should have had a 10 or 20 when they got the 60...and they still failed. Once we dropped the policy and went to the old-fashioned way (they had to EARN what they got), we had less students failing because they knew that the crutch had been taken away.

Now and then I allow students to earn back points at a later date once they have proven that they are willing to try. We Play "Let's make a Deal." I tell them, "If you keep your grade above a 75% for the next quarter, I'll allow you to do something to fix the earlier grade." Often they find that getting a 75% is so easy that they end up much higher, because the reason they failed in the first place was due to work that just wasn't done. If I "rewarded" with an unearned grade, the lesson couldn't be learned. Back when we had the minimum grade policy, I was told that a zero would hurt their self-esteem. First response, no one ever gained self-esteem because they were given unearned gifts. Second response, they finally get a realistic self-esteem when it is earned. These kids are proud when they work hard and accomplish something. Giving them too much sends the message that they can't do more. Hold them to a high standard.

Brian Hoelscher's picture

I understand wanting the students to be responsible but, they are not learning to be responsible and the are not learning content either. If you want to improve learning you have to make sure they are getting a guaranteed curriculum. There are no questions about responsibility on the ACT or SAT. Intervention should not be invitational and only given with conditions.

Sheri Edwards's picture
Sheri Edwards
Middle School Writing Teacher and Technology Coordinator

Excellent responses to this topic! Thank you all for your clear reasoning. I'd just like to add that for some students, "not trying" is an escape mechanism. They can tell themselves that they didn't really fail, "I just didn't turn in my work." This discussion shows how delicate teaching and learning is, and that we are teaching human beings, children, whose varied experiences and cultures lead them to respond to "school" in different ways. Laura Thomas said, ""Why do our kids want to take the zero?" Answer the latter and the former becomes irrelevant." I think this is key -- and how do we help kids want to succeed? In the end, I think we turn to relationships and school climate. Some of you touched on this -- safety, home-life, etc. How does a zero help a student make the choice to try? It doesn't. For those of us who work in schools where most of the students don't try, we reflect daily on how to engage students in the learning so they will choose to do the work. Taking a zero is easy when that's what has always happened. Turning that around by building relationships and creating small successes with daily work-- finding that success one step at a time helps kids want to learn in that class. There is no easy answer, but finding out "Why do our kids want to take the zero?" will begin the journey to part of the answer.

Joe Dillon's picture

I think it is fundamentally important that teachers understand the "case against the zero" anytime we ask them to submit letter grades. Most teachers grew up with traditional grading, complete with percentages that correspond to "A, B, C, D and F," and have a hard time seeing the limitations of a system that's always been in place in the schools they've attended or worked in. It's especially revealing that teachers in traditional grading systems will speak passionately on behalf of "93% = A" or staunchly refuse to grant a student the higher grade when a student's score sits on some arbitrary fence, like 79%. The same teachers will often reflect that they themselves aren't very good at math, despite holding firmly to what amount to complex formulas that are supposed to communicate to stakeholders about student learning.

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

[quote]If we don't give them a zero when it is merited, it gives them no reality in the area of cause and effect.[/quote]

Personally, I think grades should be a reflection of learning, rather than a reflection of how easily kids can jump through hoops. My recommendation is to split your grades into "habits of mind" and "summative assessments". Decide on consequences for poor habits of mind if you like (one of which will be that students will struggle on summative assessments) but don't make your grades capricious by punishing kids for poor behaviour by giving them a zero; it makes your grades even less meaningful than before.

Why does a student fail to turn in an assignment? If you don't know the reason, giving them a zero for their perceived laziness is detrimental for their future academic success. Think of the kid who doesn't turn in an assignment because they are working outside of school to help their family out. Should you send that child the message that their service to their family is something that should be punished?

Bobbie Brown's picture
Bobbie Brown
4th grade math, science & social studies, St. Martha Catholic School, Louisville, Kentucky

I appreciate the thought-provoking and coherent comments to such a topical question. This was my first year for not giving zeros (my lowest score is a 60%) and at first I was worried about grade inflation, but it didn't make a huge difference and it really did make students realize that I expected them to do the work and that taking the zero wasn't an option. I would give full credit for those students turning in late work. This year, I have decided that non-content (but still important) factors such as neatness, consistently not having assignments, etc., will not be reflected in the letter grade, but will count toward the effort, conduct and daily work scores we give (+, check or N). If a student receives an "N" in one of those categories for any subject than it keeps him/her off Honor Roll (which is a big deal at our school, which could be a subject for another discussion group).

I am a minority, however, at my school - although my administration is in full support. I envy some my colleagues in this group whose school or district is doing this.

I like the idea of required homework time after school for assignments never turned in. I may need to see how to implement that next year.

Sandi's picture
multigrade teacher PK3,4 Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 7th & 8th

You know what Ryan, I found out that my 7th & 8th grade students would rather take a "0" as well, but what I decided to do was beat them at their own game. I would simply make it homework and tell them to bring it in the next class period. I would then notify the parents that the student fail to complete their assignment. I also reminded the students that about 5 years from now they would be applying for a job or to further their education and that the transcript would show their grades and that would be really horrible if a simple grade kept them from getting a job that perhaps pays $100,000.00. My point was well taken.

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