Navigating a “No Zero” Policy

A “no zero” policy is receiving media attention and stirring controversy and resistance in Greenville, South Carolina.

Establishing a “no zero” policy is counter-intuitive for most people since it seems to work against a sense of fairness, and as those who oppose the policy typically respond, a “no zero” policy seems to encourage laziness and even passing students along who do no work.

However, a “no zero” policy is the right thing to do both statistically and academically—but only if that policy is part of wider assessment practices that support dropping zeroes as part of the grading system.

First, I recommend reading carefully an analysis that shows why assigning zeroes is flawed in a traditional A-F grading system in which the F range is often 50-60 points while all other grade ranges are 10 or fewer points. As Cristea explains:

The flaw in the system is that a 100-point grading scale does not mathematically equalize zeros to have the same weight as other scores. This paper presents the view that zeros are not fair to anyone including students, parents, teachers, and society as a whole.

The statistical flaw of zeroes and a disproportionate F range lead us to the equity problem. As Rick Wormeli has noted, fair isn’t always equal. So let me lay out briefly the broader assessment practices and concerns that must be in place when a “no zero” policy is adopted (and the “no zero” policy and these issue below should be implemented).

Schools, teachers, parents, and students must set aside grading as a system of rewards and punishments, and begin to see grading as a subset of assessment, which must be used as a system of feedback and student revision to support student learning.

In other words, assessment, tests, and grades must become part of learning and not the conclusion of learning.

In that context, student assignments, tests, and performances must be viewed as obligations by the students; in short, they must be done.

Ideally, all students would complete all assignments with mastery at the same rate, but in the real world, that will never happen. Thus, everyone must begin to worry more about students learning than at what rate they learn or if they learn simultaneously with other students.

Here, I must emphasize that assigning a zero for incomplete or skipped assignments is fundamentally no different that simply passing a student along because both practices prove that the assignment never mattered. The analogy I offer here is student assignments are similar to medicine prescribed by a doctor; neither the student nor the patient benefits if the assignment/medicine is simply ignored. In short, the only option is to do the assignment.

My alternative to the zero is that students must complete fully all work assigned or no credit can be assigned for the course; this approach addresses the problems with both assigning zeroes and simply passing students who do not complete the work.

That said, a key practice supporting all of this is requiring and allowing student revision without belaboring over trying to keep every student at the same pace or number of revisions.

I have implemented this in writing courses for over three decades, and students quickly learn that the sooner they try and the more fully they participate, the sooner they can move on; this is a much more authentic and academically positive and intrinsic motivation than punishing/rewarding with grades.

In the context of so-called content courses (wile problematic, many see writing as process, not content, although I disagree on that point), allowing zeroes or even low grades on assessments of acquiring content sends a message to students that some content simply doesn’t matter—if a student makes a zero or 63, and the class simply moves on to the next topic.

This traditional practice, I believe, has a much more negative impact on learning than any downside to “no zero” policies.

A “no zero” policy, then, is not an isolated issue, but it one important reform within a larger revision of how assessments, tests, and grades can and should be used in formal education to support the learning of all students—a messy and unpredictable process that should not be shackled to a traditional system of grading that is neither statistically nor academically sound.

For Further Reading

Rick Wormeli’s Responses to a Parent of a High-Achieving Student with Concerns About Grading Changes

Are Zeroes Fair?: An Analysis of Grading Practices, James Cristea

The Gray Areas of Grading, Rick VanDeWeghe

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

One comment

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    There is another option. Zeros are still earned for work that is not turned in. Incomplete work completed correctly receives partial credit. For instance, if a student turns in an assignment with half of the work completed, then that student earns half of what that assignment is worth if the work is correct.

    I think this teaches children that if you don’t work, you also don’t get paid for it. Excusing zeroes earned from not turning in work is teaching children it is okay not to work if you don’t feel like it. All of the work in my classes was valued on a point system. At the end of the semester, the total points were translated into a grade. To earn a D-, a student had to earn 55% of the total points possible. There was only one test for the semester, and it was on all the material read and skills taught. It was an open book test that was graded based on the highest score earned or the second highest if the highest had too much of a gap to the next student. The final exam was worth 10% of the total grade and any student earning an A from coursework in the class the week before the final exam was excused from taking the test—their A was guaranteed and they were allowed to take the test for fun if they wanted to. If they failed the test, they still had their A.

    Writing assignments, as you suggested—essays, book reports/reviews, research papers, etc—included the option of revisions to correct and improve work because learning takes place when this happens. I did this in the classes I taught. In addition, essays when through a rough draft process that included student feedback in small groups after the students were taught how to provide positive constructive criticism guided by a rubric the students helped create so they could understand it. After the small group student feedback, individuals students then edited, revised and wrote a final draft. All final drafts were read by the teacher, me, and graded based on the same rubric that the students generated in a class exercise and used in their constructive criticism groups. During the student group read-arounds, I moved about the room listening to the comments from the groups to monitor for negative feedback and gently intervene if I heard any. Every essay also had a rubric sheet with comments stapled to it so the author of the essay could learn from what an entire class of students had to say about their essay in addition to postive suggestions for improvement.

    The writing assignments were worth much more than a grammar/mechanics assignment where students had to place punctuation correctly in a sentence out of a textbook exercise or from a worksheet.

    This process worked well, and this was verified from the school district that tracked student progress though annual standardized tests and an annual essay that mandated by California’s ed code—essays that went through a similar process that I used in my classroom but in this case, teachers who worked during the summer using rubrics to rank essays from other schools. That’s where I got the idea to use the same process with my students, because I was one of the teachers who volunteered to be paid to read student essays from other school districts in California and rank them using a more sophisticated rubric than the one that was created in my classroom with cooperative feedback from my students.

    At one English department meeting in the 1990s, led by one of the high school’s VP’s, she put up an overhead showing a vertical bar chart that revealed the before and after progress of the students for each teacher that had been made from the previous year to the present from that state mandated essay. One bar soared above all the others by a large margin. The VP said that bar came from my students and the gains they made in writing, according to the annual state mandated essay and the teachers using that rubric over the summer, had been consistent year after year.

    The student postive constructive criticism groups didn’t read or critique their own work or the essays written by the students in the same class. They read the essays from other classes and never read or critiqued any student in their own group. Essays were assigned anonymous ID numbers that only the teacher, me, knew, and no student knew what class or student they were reading and critiquing. Period 2 might be reading the essays from period 5 and so on. Every essay had a small group rubric attached to it along with comments from an entire class of students that read and constructively criticized the word for its good points and areas for suggested improvements.

    Then there was the challenging extra credit assignments—essays, analytical book reports and research papers with footnotes and citation page. An A- in my classes started at 90% of points possible from required class and homework. An A+ was 97% and up. Yet, with these challenging extra credit assignments, a few students, who did everything, ended a semester with an average of more than 130%. The extra credit was a way to allow students to turn around their grade but it wasn’t easy work. A student who did the challenging extra credit assignments could do one over as many times as they wanted to keep improving the grade up until grades closed near the end of the semester. And most of the few students who decided to improve their grade through this extra work often did one assignment over several times. There were students who earned an F on the first draft of an extra, voluntary assignment. We had a meeting where we talked about what could be done to improve the work and how to do it. The student took the extra assignment home and did it again. The next time that student turned the work in, the grade might go up to a D or C. The student had the option of taking it home and doing it again after another one on one meeting in the morning, at lunch of after school. I had one student who did one assignment over six times to earn an A+. The next time that student turned in a simliar extra credit assignment, she earned an A+ the first time around–she had learned all the skills necessary from that first voluntary, extra challenging, proper Op-Ed essay. That girl started the year with an attitude and was earning and F after the first month of school, but ended the semester with an A. Then she was telling the other students who didn’t want to work that all they had to do was what she had done—that anyone could earn an A+ in my class though hard work, because no test could ever hold them back. Sad to say, there weren’t many like that one girl. She was a tough one with a rough attitude and the physical battle scars from gang warfare to prove it.

    I didn’t eat lunch with the other teachers—too much negative talk and complaints. It was difficult as it was keeping a positive attitude for my students. There is too much that is wrong about public education in this country and I’m not talking about lazy or failing teachers. I’m talking about the meddling caused by bilionare oligarchs, hedge fund mangers, idiots and frauds like Eva Moskowitz and Michelle Rhee, and government officials who are forcing destructive school reforms on the rest of the country, who should all be executed ASAP. Dusting off the guillotine would be a good start.

    I stayed in my classroom and the room usually filled up with students from the journalism class I taught, from the chess club to play chess (I was one of the two teacher advisers for the chess club) and for the environmental student club I was also a co-adviser for. It was a busy classroom during the 30 minute lunch period. I ate my meager lunch, played chess, joined club meetings, talked to the few students who dropped by to learn how to improve one of those assignments they could do over for a better grade, etc. The teaching days went fast. The afternoons, after school, and the long nights and weekends dragged as I corrected student work and planned lessons often working 60 to 100 hour weeks for the thirty years I was a public school teacher in a district where the childhood poverty rate started at 70% and climbed close to 100% depending on the school and its surrounding community.

    I retired in 2005 after thirty years.

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