Innovation in Grading: Are Zeroes Fair?

Elisabeth Rogers tweeted a link to this interesting Edutopia article on Grading and Zeroes. It brings up a lot of good questions about grading, and the comments section is interesting reading as well. I thought it might be good to talk about here, as there has been a lot of conversation about innovation in grading at District 287 lately.

A quote from the article:
“So, invariably, zeroes kill grades, often creating holes that kids cannot crawl out of, resulting in many giving up and failing a course.”

From the comments section:
“If you eliminate the use of zeros for work never turned in, you teach kids to play the system and avoid any work they’d rather not bother with. Zeroes ARE an authentic reflection of life.”

I will have to read the article. I’m curious about what the alternatives are. Ultimately, one or multiple “zeroes” over the course of a quarter/tri/semester should not cause a student to fail if they can show in sum that they did meet a critical mass of standards, right? However, if the zeroes truly reflect no effort, and therefore standards not met, I don’t really see what the problem is. The problem I would have is if we say, “you were disrespectful so you get a zero,” or “you weren’t here that day so it’s a zero.” If situations like that are causing students to fail who are meeting standards, then that is not OK.

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Pittsburgh schools tried a policy to combat the zero grade issue a few years back. Here’s a link to the article: Eyebrows raised over city school policy that sets 50% as minimum score It backfired horribly as the students quickly realized that they could do next to nothing, earn a few points on a few key assignments and then squeak by with a D-. I just noticed the date from the tweeted article was 2007 and Pittsburgh schools tried this model in 2008.

In my classes I always allow students to go back and complete missing assignments so that they can fill in gaps in both their grades and their understanding. I guess part of this goes along with Mastery based grading (or standards based grading if you want to call it that). Is the assignment truly meaningful and is there a detriment to the students understanding if they have not completed it? (Kind of what Ben was saying regarding if the zero is a punishment or proof of missed mastery.)

My feeling is that grades don’t articulate a student’s competencies/skills, so changing our grading practices so that they accurately depict what a student knows seems to be the right focus.

Yeah, the question seems a bit loaded to me, kind of like asking, “Should we kill kittens by electric shock or drowning?” The answer is that we shouldn’t be killing kittens.

In the same way, I’m not sure that a grading system that uses zeros and percents and includes non-academic elements like punctuality and whatnot is a good system to start with. Replacing zeros with 50% would seem to only create new problems, but a policy that gives zeros that are impossible to make up is more silently crippling. Allowing all zeroes to be made up for full credit leads to procrastination, poor learning outcomes, and horrible workflows for teachers at the end of grading periods.


I completely agree Mike. I am in agreement that replacing zeroes with percentages is not the solution, and there does need to be a way to hold students accountable. If we continue to use grades as we do now, I feel they should be weighted appropriately so as not to destroy a student’s overall performance, but enough to nudge them to do the hard work of learning.

I must also mention that term grades with overall comments that have nothing to do with the grade or the learning that took place concern me as well.