I Hate Zeroes

We probably all had it happen at least one. We forgot to turn in an assignment. Or, we just didn’t understand it and we blew bubbles on it.

“I’m giving you a zero on that.”

Dude, that sucks. Am I right?

On an intellectual level it makes sense. You get nothing for nothing if that’s what you do. (Great, now I have “It’s So Easy” by Guns N’ Roses stuck in my head!). If you don’t turn in an assignment or it is an utter failure then why should you get any points at all for it? So, teachers, me included, would put a zero in the grade book.

Today, I think that’s wrong.

Zeroes kill grades. Zeroes are death to averages. Zeroes will weigh a grade down and, if you accumulate enough of them, destroy any hope of ever passing the class.

“What’s wrong with that? Maybe it will teach them some responsibility.”

Well, maybe. But I went through the Language Arts standards and I didn’t see one that that indicated that I should be grading students based on their responsibility. Grammar? Sure. Ability to write an essay? Yes. Analyzing figurative language? You betcha. Responsibility? Nope.

“When I was in school, that’s how it was done.”

And, did you like it? Did it make you a better learner? I think one of my least favorite reasons for doing something. “We have always done it this way.” Just because it has been done that way doesn’t make it right, good, or useful. The reason for doing something should be because it is the best way, not tradition. Whenever someone says that, I almost always know that whatever they are trying to justify is a horrible idea.

Grades should be a measure of what a student learns in a given class. Do zeroes help that? In a traditional grade book, a teacher records points for the assignments. Homework, quizzes, tests, essays, reports, participation and so on. Then, usually, keeping the example simple, they add up all the points then divide that by the total points possible. That gives them a percentage that is then translated into a grade.

I’m not going to do a bunch of math right here. It’s a pain to type out. But, grab yourself a calculator and enter in 10 scores. Pretend all of the assignments are of equal weight and worth 100 points each. Give the kids some B’s, an A, and some C’s. Make one score a zero. Divide by 1,000 (in this hypothetical example, the total points possible is 1,0000) Guess what? I bet you that kid gets, say, a 73% (that’s what happened when I just did it.) But, add 50 points and that score becomes 78%. That kid went from a low C to a C+. Not a super big deal, if you ask me. He’s not getting into an Ivy League school with C’s. Right?

Now, do the same thing, but instead of any A’s, give more C’s and one B. Give him a couple D’s as well. But, only give him five scores. The rest are zeros. Now, take that number and divide by 1,000. That’s a low score. When I did it, that kid got 34%. Ouch. Massive failure. Let’s say that’s the progress report. Little Johnny got an “F” on his report card. Parents get crazy, ground him, take away his cell phone. So, he’s got 5 missing assignments and, let’s say, he can’t make them up, either. It’s too late, he’s told. But, the semester’s not over.

So, Johnny starts studying. He does his work. He starts turning in work. It’s pretty amazing, actually. He’s the problem, though. Add five more scores. Give him 3 C’s and 2 B’s. Let’s say it brings his total up to 811. He’s feeling pretty good about his grade. He’s been working hard to do what he’s supposed to. Problem is, though, that 811 is out of 1500. That’s 54%. He still has an “F.”

Now, if I’m Johnny, I feel pretty bad about that. I’ve been doing good but I’m still failing? How can that be?

Give him five more scores. Since he’s not very happy and his parents are still pissed at him so he still didn’t get his phone back and he’s still on restriction and his girl broke up with him when he stopped texting her, then he’s probably not doing as well. Give him four C’s and a D. That’s still not bad work, right?

He’s still got an “F.” That’s 58%. You see, those five missing assignments sitting there represented by zeroes are absolutely murdering his grade average. Ask yourself, what lesson is Johnny learning? Is he learning responsibility? Or, is he learning that no matter how hard you work, you can never escape your past?

“Well, sometimes in life, that’s the way it works in the real world.”

School is NOT the real world. Kids should be rewarded when they do well. And, kids that make improvement should be rewarded as well. In reality, little Johnny is being punished over and over for missing those five assignments. And, if you have taught for more than a couple years, you know that having a kid go from being a knucklehead to turning in work and applying themselves is pretty remarkable. Only, in this case, Johnny gives up. Why should he bother? His grade says he’s stupid. It says he has failed to learn anything in the class. Is that true? Obviously not. His assignments actually show that he’s learning basically what the average kid would learn in the class. Mostly “C’s.”

Now, here’s the magic. Add 250 points to his score, 50 points for each missing assignment (50%). What does he get now? A “C” freaking minus!!!

Johnny is off restriction. He gets his cell phone back. His parents hug him and mom, with tears shining in her eyes, tells him she always believed he could pass that English class!

All because instead of giving him zeroes, I gave him F’s. Yes, 50% of the points is an F. Does Johnny deserve to fail my class or pass with a C- ? I think you and I both know that the C- is the fair grade.

That’s why I never give zeroes any more.


2 thoughts on “I Hate Zeroes”

  1. Would you do the same thing for a student who is given the opportunity to turn in late work until grades are due, and still doesn't attempt the work? I know they won't connect the time in school when they got 0's to the time 15 years later when, while working on comission, and never making a sale, they receive $0 in their paycheck. But isn't that what will happen if they don't do the work? Would you give them half of everyone's net commission just because you don't like 0's?


  2. I may not totally understand your question but, yes I would do the same thing and have. I have done this policy in two previous years as a teacher. It works much better. People that give zeroes are using grades as punishment which is not what grades are supposed to be. Grades represent how much a student learned. By the way, you equate getting paid to earning grades. Those are not analogous. Money is an exchange for services or product. Grades are a symbol to represent content mastery. I am not giving students a grade because of the work they performed. I assess their work and assign a grade to represent their learning progress. It's not the same thing at all.

    I don't believe a student in touch with reality thinks they should be given commissions on zero sales because I put 50% in my gradebook to represent an F. It's reasoning like this that is screwing up education. I'm a Language Arts teacher, not a work ethics teacher. If I was spending time teaching students to dance in my English class then people would say that was outrageous. But then some people say we should teach things that are not part of the curriculum
    like responsibility or how to be a good employee.

    I hope you understand, I appreciate your question and the fact that you took the time to read and post. But, I take my profession very seriously and this is not some silly, frivolous theory of mine. It's real and it's correct. Hopefully this helps you understand better. Take care!


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