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The Nuances of No-Zero Grading Policies

no-zero grading

Zeros are incredibly controversial. Many school districts across the country have altered the process of assigning students a zero grade while others have abandoned more pervasive grading practices entirely in favor of what are known as “standards-based” assessment measures. As the battle between holding on to more traditional methods or implementing newer approaches rages among educators and laypeople, many of us start defending polarized points of view. In reality, whether or not to abandon zeros is a highly nuanced issue, one that deserves more than the oversimplification it usually receives. To avoid a knee-jerk response to this topic, it is important to first learn more about why zeros can be problematic, how the ideology of standards-based practice connects to this hot-button issue, and what can be done to achieve a balanced approach that serves students and ensures their continued academic growth.

Why No Zeros?

Why did zeros become so unpopular?

Mathematically speaking, the issue isn’t just the zero itself, but also the numerical chasm that occurs between zero to 50. If we look at a typical 100-point scale, most grades exist within a range of 10 points (or percentage points). For example, an “A” grade usually represents anything between a 90-100. However, in a traditional scale, the space for failure represents about 60 points, namely anything between zero to 59. When failing grades under that construct are weighed, the potential of one poor grade to irrevocably change a student’s grade for the worse is significant. Sometimes, it becomes mathematically impossible for kids to recover from just one bad showing, even if they turn their performance around on subsequent assignments. The numbers are simply too overwhelming. Once students see that there is no way to be successful, they often grow discouraged and simply give up, and not necessarily in one class. The morale dip can affect performance across subject areas and become an enduring problem.

Those who push back on bottoming grades out at 50 percent argue that students can game the system – essentially, that kids who want to take advantage of unearned points can do little to no work and still earn partial credit. Provided that is an accurate description of a grading policy, it behooves us all to wonder what good 50 percent does for a student. How frequently do students who abuse a policy like this achieve genuine success? True, their failure may be a little less dramatic, or they may eke out a perceived win when they pass a course with a “D” grade. But is that really a victory? Ultimately, how much good does a just-over-the-line score do for anyone’s academic career? That is a question worth exploring.

What is “Standards-Based” Grading?

For some teachers, depending on the constraints of the systems in which they work, the standards-based approach is more philosophical or ideological and not necessarily practical in terms of application. The standards-based grading movement places focus on student achievement of identified learning outcomes, not on grading systems in which educators might assign arbitrary scores to performance measures that are not indicative of what kids actually need to know and be able to do. In some academic settings, grades have ceased to exist as a data point, but that is hardly the norm in most schools. Instead, for teachers who are interested in being more acutely aware of how to focus instruction on appropriate, grade-level standards, the process of assessment becomes far more accurate and meaningful when lessons and assignments are planned with the intention of helping kids learn the right content, the right way, at the right time.

The Spaces Between

The urge to create a stark dichotomy between a grading system that disallows zeros and one that employs traditional scoring methods might be strong, but a middle ground exists. In many school systems that no longer use zeros as a default, guardrails have been put in place to ensure that students are receiving every opportunity to achieve while making it clear that teachers are not expected to perform miracles. For example, some systems allow zero grades to stand if students are given multiple and documented opportunities to complete work and still have not submitted anything. Some districts require that parents or guardians meet with teachers when students are not turning in their work to develop a plan or the zero grade stands, which may bring up issues of equity for kids who do not have personal advocates who can attend school meetings. Still, giving students either consistent partial credit or a string of zeros automatically without any investigation into what is happening is poor practice, and one would hope it is also unusual to see.

Before getting into heated conversations about whether zeros should be a continuing option, it is more important to consider what methods of assessment best support student achievement. How can systems of grading best be designed to ensure that kids who know the content and are engaged in class have opportunities to show what they can do? And if there is a disconnect between a grade and a student’s knowledge (the classic scenario in which a frequently absent student aces a test, for example), why is that happening? Instead of going twenty rounds over what degree of failure goes into a gradebook, it makes a lot more sense to determine why students are struggling to begin with. Then, any reform or policy changes can reflect the judicious consideration of instructional needs, and not the knee-jerk anger that all too frequently intrudes conversations about student achievement.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS