Less Than Zero

Should schools rethink the practice of giving zeros to unfinished work?

Powers Thaddeus “Teddy” Norrell

Consider this scenario: Mark and Emily are students in an AP Physics class. The teacher gives the students five assignments during the term. Mark does well on the first few assignments, earning a 99 and an 89. Then he slacks off, plays on social media during class, and gives a half-hearted effort on his assignments. His final three grades are 79, 69, and 59.

Unlike Mark, Emily is an engaged student who always pays attention in class, has a high class rank, and has never made a grade lower than an A. Emily’s first four grades in physics are 100, 99, 99, and 98. Emily is set to have a 99 average for the term. However, she has had an unusually busy week, and when she arrives at school on the morning the final assignment is due, she realizes that she has completely forgotten to do it. She explains her situation to the teacher and begs to be allowed to turn it in the next day. The teacher is unsympathetic and assigns Emily a grade of zero for the final assignment, telling her that this will prepare her for the “real world.”

Both Mark and Emily finish the course with a grade of 79. If grades are meant to be a measure of how well a student understands the material, a final grade of 79 might seem to be too high for Mark and too low for Emily.

The purpose of grades

In any discussion about the fairness of zeros, the first item to consider would be the purpose of grades. T.R. Guskey, a professor of Education at the University of Kentucky, has done extensive research in this area and suggests that grades generally serve six purposes: (1) to communicate achievement status; (2) to provide information to students to help them evaluate their performance; (3) to identify students who need special help; (4) to provide incentives to learn; (5) to discover the effectiveness of a lesson; and (6) as discipline.

The use of zeros for forgotten assignments is an example of grades used for discipline. In many classes in our school system, if a student forgets or is unable to complete his or her homework by the due date, that student receives a grade of zero and hears that there’s no need to do the work because he or she will receive no credit for it. The zero is averaged into the student’s other grades, and it can quickly reduce an A grade to a C or D.

Some might argue that neglecting to turn in an assignment is a behavioral issue rather than an academic one, and that the best way to deal with a behavioral issue is with an appropriate behavioral punishment. Canadian blogger Trent deJong, a 30-year educator, stated, “Not turning in assignments is unacceptable behaviour and needs to be dealt with like other unacceptable behaviours: like bullying, vandalism or littering . . . . To take marks off for late or missing assignments would amount to the same thing as deducting points for dress code violations.” Most educators would probably agree that grades should not be used to punish behavioral issues, but the use of the zero for forgotten assignments persists.

Zeros as discipline

There are significant problems with the policy of using zeros as discipline. Guskey states, “No studies support the use of zeros or low grades as effective punishment.” This is true for many reasons.

For one, life is filled with variables that can prevent students from completing their homework. Some students have less fortunate family lives than others. Many educators believe that, because there are approximately eight waking hours between the end of school one day and the beginning of school the next day, there is plenty of time to do the homework. That may not be the case in a school that encourages extracurricular activities or in families that may have outside commitments. It may also not be the case for students with dysfunctional or even dangerous home lives. If the reason the student does not have his work is outside of the student’s control, no form of punishment can change that.

Many educators do not support the use of zeros, which is partially because a zero is almost never an accurate reflection of what a student has learned. DeJong points out on his blog, “Theoretically, zeros can be used under the no-zero policy if it is an accurate reflection of what the student knows. But, it is highly unlikely that the student knows absolutely nothing.”

Toxic grading policy

The use of zeros can “cause students to withdraw from learning,” according to Guskey. Some even label the use of zeros for missing work as a “toxic” grading policy. Giving a student a zero on any graded assignment lowers more than the student’s morale, because it is nearly impossible to recover academically from one or multiple zeros. Some students give up because even “receiving a single zero leaves them little chance for success or a high grade because such an extreme score skews the average,” says Guskey.

Consider Emily in the example above. Emily now has no chance of getting into the Ivy League school she had hoped to attend since childhood because of one missed assignment. Even without an A in AP Physics, Emily may have had an uphill climb given the low acceptance rates at top colleges, but a grade of 79 essentially ends all hope. It is quite rare for any student who has received a grade lower than an A to be accepted into a highly ranked university. This one assignment has forever changed the trajectory of Emily’s life.

Zeros are toxic not only for high-achieving students like Emily. They are also toxic for at-risk students as well. Consider John, who was doing well in his high school’s general courses until his mom entered rehab for her drug addiction in the middle of the school year. John had been maintaining a C average in all of his classes in spite of his difficulties at home, but after his mom left, his thoughts were consumed with worry and depression. He now has to be responsible for his family’s meals and laundry. John forgets two assignments and suddenly his grade goes from a C to an F. John knows he cannot recover from the zeros he has received and decides to drop out of school.

If John’s school had a no-zero policy, he could have made up his two homework assignments and saved his grade instead of dropping out. The principal of Darmstadt Middle School in Germany realized that grades of zero for missed work had “made it mathematically impossible for [many] students to pass,” so she changed policy to allow and require students make up missed work, and within three quarters, there was not a single student who was failing. Douglas Reeves, the chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment, states, “When grading policies improve, discipline and morale almost always follow.”

People who favor zeros for missed assignments have made several arguments in defense of the use of zeros. Many of these arguments presume that the student receives a passing grade but is still not required to do the work. That is not the case. A good no-zero policy still requires students to complete their work.

Fear as a motivator

One argument in favor of zeros is that fear is a great motivator for students. When the issue of zeros was discussed at the Virginia Beach School Board recently, one board member said in the Virginian-Pilot, “A zero is an incredible motivator to get a student to at least turn in an assignment and try.”

However, as seen with Emily, fear would not have motivated her to do the assignment, because one cannot be motivated to do something he or she has simply forgotten to do. Some may argue that giving a student a zero in high school teaches the student not to be lazy at a time when it does not matter as much as it will in adulthood. Emily, however, is not a lazy student, and the zero she received in her AP Physics course did not come at a time when it did not matter. Rather, this zero will forever change the trajectory of Emily’s life by preventing her from being accepted into a highly ranked college.

Clearly, zeros can devastate students like Emily, who are already motivated toward academic success. But zeros also hurt at-risk students. As seen with John, the zeros he received did not motivate him to improve. Rather, they did the opposite. With no hope of passing his course after receiving two zeros for missed assignments, John dropped out of school.

The real world

The most common justification of the use of zeros is that they teach students about the “real world” and that life is harsh. Proponents of zeros say that assigning zeros for missing work teaches students to respect deadlines However, one might question whether giving zeros for missed assignments without allowing students to make up the work truly reflects the harsh reality of the real world.

Consider this scenario: Malcolm’s credit card payment is due on the fifth of the month. On the sixth, the credit card company tells Malcolm, “Well, you didn’t make your payment on time, so now you don’t have to pay, but this will go on your credit report.” That is not realistic. In real life, Malcolm would still be expected to pay his bill, and the credit card company would not report his late payment until several weeks or months had passed without payment. Educators who use the zero tell students that they are preparing them for the “real world,” when in fact there is no correlation.

Unfair to other students

A third argument in favor of zeros is that it is not fair to other students to allow those who forgot an assignment to make up the work later. In response to a National Post article entitled, “Giving a Student a Zero Shows You Care,” commenters favoring the use of zeros were outraged on behalf of punctual students, stating, “Students who make efforts to submit every assignment must be furious that less scrupulous students might achieve the same result,” and “It’s like slapping [the] faces of those who work hard and submit their assignments on time.” Concessions given to one student, however, do not affect another student’s grade. One might ask that if the same no-zero grading policy applies to both students, how could it be considered unfair to any of them?

Consider Amy and Jose. Amy was born into privilege, and she has all the technological tools that she needs to succeed, as well as parental support, safety, and shelter. Amy turns in her English paper on the morning it is due. Jose is in Amy’s class. Jose often comes to school hungry. He has unreliable housing, sometimes living with an uncle and sometimes sleeping in his car. Jose’s only access to a computer or printer is at the school’s computer lab. On the morning the English paper is due, Jose arrives at school as soon as the computer lab opens, but does not have enough time to type and print his paper before class starts. Is it really unfair to Amy if the teacher gives Jose extra time to finish the paper? Perhaps Amy’s relatively easy life would seem unfair compared to Jose’s.

In this context, one might also ask whether it is fair that students with special needs get additional time to complete their work, but most would agree that such a question is absurd. Perhaps this is simply none of the other students’ business. When one considers the many variables of any student’s situation, he or she must realize that it is not at all possible to create a level playing field for all students, and one cannot, therefore, label a no-zero policy as unfair, particularly when it applies to all students.

So long as the no-zero policy is equally applied, then it would appear to be fair to everyone. It would seem that the high-achieving students who typically remember to do their work would appreciate the relief that comes with knowing that one forgetful episode would not destroy their GPA.

Alternatives to zero

As pointed out by proponents of zeros, it would not be fair at all to allow students who refuse to do the work to receive a passing grade. However, zeros are devastatingly unfair to good students who merely have a lapse in memory, as well as to at-risk students whose home lives make outside work difficult to impossible.

There are numerous alternatives to assigning grades of zero for missed work. The most obvious alternative, and the one used in Canada and in Darmstadt Middle School in Germany, involves giving a student an I for incomplete. It requires that the student stay after school or attend Saturday school until the assignment is complete.

Other alternatives include using a four-point grading scale instead of a 100-point scale, which unnaturally skews grades toward failure when a zero is factored in. Educators may also consider dropping a student’s lowest grade, using the median rather than the mean for averaging grades, or reporting behavioral issues separately from academic ones (Guskey “Computerized” 776).

Many students fear that they will forget their homework and get a zero. One simple oversight on a single day could forever change a student’s life for the worse. If a purpose of education is to teach students about the real world, then it should teach students that when there is work that must be done, that work is still required even if it is done late. The use of zeros teaches the opposite.

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