Why Zero Isn’t A Grade At All


Grades represent evaluations of learning.

A zero, given for missing or late work, does not represent an evaluation of learning.

Therefore, that zero is not a grade.

Any questions?

(So, what are those zeros doing in grade books?)

(Next up: Zero and Statistical Integrity)


Jose said…
After reading your posts about it, it only solidified a lot about what you said with regards to learning, and I like it. I still use zero, but it’s exactly for what you mentioned: a lack of evidence of learning. In any case, have a good thanksgiving, man.
November 21, 2007 7:04 PM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
And a great Thanksgiving to you and yours!You might notice that I was commenting on your blog while you were here! 😉

November 21, 2007 8:03 PM
Teacher -n- Training said…
AMEN! That’s all I have to say
November 22, 2007 6:14 AM
Margaret said…
A lack of effort to do the assignment? A lack of effort to take the test? (or make it up, if absent) I would much rather put scores in my gradebook, but some of the students sure don’t cooperate with that.
November 23, 2007 6:45 PM
The Science Goddess said…
Oddly enough, I am finding that an “I” in the gradebook is more motivating than an “F.” Kids are more worried about having to explain to parents that they didn’t do work at all than that they did it poorly.
November 24, 2007 8:11 PM
Clix said…
My concern is that a student who has actively resisted any and all attempts to be taught the material, and wouldn’t DREAM of putting forth any effort to learn it, will be quite happy to let that “I” sit there in the gradebook.It seems like an “I” would give a student disincentive to complete an assessment for material s/he doesn’t want to learn, because an “I” neither helps nor harms the average, while a low grade will almost certainly harm it.

Think about a single exam – would you only count as right or wrong the questions a student answered, and ignore those left blank?

November 25, 2007 6:47 AM

11 thoughts on “Why Zero Isn’t A Grade At All

  1. I wholeheartedly believe what you’ve said here. Today, in the Monday Meeting, I had a teacher to say that she wanted to raise her expectations for her students but when she raises her expectations and the children don’t deliver or follow through on an assignment, she feels like she should be able to give them a “0” on the assignment without it being seen as her own personal failure.

    I certainly don’t want to frustrate or send the wrong message. . . how would you address this?

    Lisa, I’d have to ask the teacher some questions.

    1. If she gives the student a zero, is she aware of the damage that it does in to a mean average based on percentile? (Statistically, zero is a huge outlier and invalidates the mean average on a zero-100 scale.) The grade loses it integrity when zeros are mixed in.

    2. In spite of the logic in the syllogism, does she really consider zero to be a grade?

    3. Does the zero close the door on the assignment, or is there an opportunity to complete the assignment and have it evaluated according to the educational standard it was based on, without any arbitrary point penalty? (The whole point of standards-based grading is to evaluate student learning according to state standards and not let the grade be skewed or distorted by idiosyncratic teacher penalties.)

    4. How does the teacher consider herself to be successful by giving a zero? Or unsuccessful if she does not? That mind set confuses me.

    5. Why not “incompletes” instead of zeros?

    6. Does the teacher realize that giving zeros to hold students “responsible” puts her at risk for appearing to be irresponsible herself? (See The Responsibility Paradox.)

    7. Finally, I’d say, “Are you open to learning more about sound grading practices that have a positive effect on student achievement and can result in less work and stress for teachers?”

    The teacher needs to realize that a student’s production, or lack of same, is not necessarily a reflection on the teacher. I could be full of beans, but I think the connection between giving the zero and needing your absolution to do it to keep from feeling like a personal failure is bogus and manipulative on the part of the teacher.

    Hang in there, Lisa. Some teachers just don’t want to be confused by anything that doesn’t fit their notions. They are resistant to new learning and will invent all kinds of hypothetical situations to “disprove” what you try to teach them. Standards-based grading doesn’t determine how a teacher feels about themselves. It’s just part of best assessment practices, and if you look at the teachers who resist, you’ll find that 99% of them haven’t invested any time in learning about it.

    For a fast and easy introduction to grading for learning, get a copy of A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor

    For a more in-depth, but very readable, look at the subject, order How To Grade For Learning from Amazon.

    Bloggers on my roll who have talked about grading in some depth include The Science Goddess and The Exhausted Intern. Both have had extensive training, and the Goddess’s dissertation delves into the intersection of motivation and grading. Miss Profe has also blogged about grading.

    Look up references to “grading” in our blog category/indexes.

    We’re also putting up some stuff on the Edubloggers wiki (a learning process, to say the least).

    And check my SBG page up on the RepairKit masthead for the guidelines that I used as a teacher.

    Thanks for joining the conversation on grading, Lisa! This is the “final frontier” in classroom assessment. — Hugh

  2. So with this logic, we also should pay people who show up to work but do nothing, or put in no time.

    Mathaddict, here’s what I wrote above:


    Grades represent evaluations of learning.
    A zero, given for missing or late work, does not represent an evaluation of learning.
    Therefore, that zero is not a grade.

    Any questions?

    (So, what are those zeros doing in grade books?)

    Was there anything in that syllogism that you didn’t understand? Or do you commonly employ irrelevancy (a logical fallacy) to make your points?

    If you’re confused, let me help you…zeros and grading have absolutely nothing to do with jobs and pay. Nothing. — Hugh

    • So, can you clarify then how we are to prepare students for the “real world” by never setting any deadlines that have any meaning and giving them the endless “do-overs” when they produce incomplete or sloppy work beneath their capabilities?

      I don’t know about your job, but I haven’t had any jobs where I get to turn things in whenever I feel like it, never have deadlines, and complete projects assigned to me by my bosses as sloppily as I feel like at the time because I know I’ll get to do it again and again until I get it right. All this because I have always known that such behavior would result in my termination.

  3. I’ve just recently stumbled across your page, so forgive me for posting a response to such an old post.

    I teach amongst a diverse faculty: old, young, Dem, Rep, gay, straight, and everything in between; yet the majority agree on wanting to push the “teach responsibility” agenda.

    Our students are responsible about the things the care about, and the don’t care about school because they either A) don’t succeed or B) succeed all too easily without much effort.

    We have struggled with implementing a policy that keeps missing formative assessments from bringing down grades, but everyone simplifies the issue back to “teaching responsibility” and the need for zeroes. I think some teacher get off on it, those pretty little round things filling up their grade books.

    The issue I face in spreading the gospel is that I need to be able to present it in pretty basic terms, then ease everyone into the deep end as the discussion continues.


  4. Hi, I am a K-8 principal, and I’ve been concerned for several years about the number of students in grades 7-8 who fail for the year. Often what happens is that a student gets off to a poor start in the first quarter, and their average in a particular subject is so low (due to zeros) that they cannot pull it up over the next three quarters. So they give up.

    This poor start may be due to a number of factors, some of which may be beyond the student’s control. Developmentally, seventh and eighth graders are not mature enough to understand fully the consequences of their actions. There has got to be a safety net for middle school students who make a stupid mistake, not a way for them to be totally excused from responsibility, but a way for them to learn from their mistakes and get it right the second time.

    Some schools give a failing grade for missing work, instead of a zero. The failing grade is usually not less than a certain amount, e.g. 50. In this way, the weight of a failing grade is not excessively greater than the weight of an A or a B.

    I can imagine that teachers might have a problem with giving a 50 for no work turned in at all. But, after all, 50 is a failing grade with some weight to it. And if you have a student who is consistently turning in no work, then perhaps the teacher should delve into why that student seems so unmotivated. Simply failing the student is not going to fix the problem.

    I am planning on having a discussion with the faculty and parents of our school to see if they would adopt a “50 minimum” failing grade policy for middle grades.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mary.

      You have touched on a key reason why educators must strive to clean up grading: the damage we do to kids who do not yet have their head in the game.

      The “50 minimum” policy might be a hard sell. Some folks understand the math, others can’t get past giving “something for nothing.”

      There are some other alternatives, including adopting use of the median average instead of the mean in a percentage system; using INC instead of zero, and then supporting the student’s efforts to get the assignment completed satisfactorily; going to a four-point system (A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0) which greatly reduces the damage of the zero. You might want to consider putting out some alternatives for your staff that allow them to choose.

      That’s just a short list. With your permission I’ll email you a few notes on my decade-long quest to introduce “grading for learning” to the Hillsboro School District 1J. Might help with your discussion.

  5. This is such a wonderful example of the ‘dumbing down’ of our education system. Does it make sense to teach the next generation that they can be successful, and expect to do well, even if they haven’t been doing the work?
    Today’s lesson is that nothing doesn’t = 0… it’s worth 50.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Emma. But speaking of “doing the work,” have you been doing the reading on sound grading practices in professional literature? We’re interested in assessment and evaluation of student learning as measured against state/district standards, not student earning as measured by the volume of “work” pumped out by the student.

  7. Oh brother, please don’t “drink the koolaid”. This is a ludicrous idea. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you what my seventh and eighth graders thought when I asked them. Mind you, they are NOT AP; they are NOT over-privileged. They are average students, sometimes lazy, at a school where there’s over 70% free/reduced lunches. They said,”Don’t give up on us. Yes, we get lazy…because we’re kids! Push us! Make us do the work.” I asked if they thought their parents would support this idea. They said, “No!” Then I asked if they wanted their children to be graded this way. Of course they said, “No!”
    So for WHOM and why are you creating this policy: the students who don’t want it or a district who’s wanting their overall grades to look better on paper?

    • Do a little more reading on the subject and get back to me.

      And please, lay off using 7th and 8th grade students as your research base.

      Oh, and don’t ask questions after which you give the only two answers you’re looking for. In logic, that’s called a fallacy.

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