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The no-zeros grading controversy

 A teacher in Canada was recently suspended because he gave students zeros for missing work, which was against the policy of his school district.

Whether or not to give zeros is a big controversy among teachers.

Some say that if a student doesn’t turn in work, the zero is an accurate assessment and appropriate punishment. But others, like Joe Bowers and Ken O’Connor, say that giving zeros amounts to hurting children and discouraging learning. If an A is 90, a D is 60 and an F is 50, then why go down to zero for missing?

This debate is fraught with emotion. Everyone has gone through school, so the typical way we think of grades is deeply rooted. The 100-point scale seems natural, and so does the zero for missing work. After all, isn’t school supposed to prepare students for the real world, and shouldn’t they be held accountable for messing up?

I’ve thought about grading policies for a while. Some years, I’ve tried standard-based grading systems, which largely get away from the 100-point scale and emphasize progress toward learning outcomes rather than student effort. Other years (like this one), I’ve gone with an extremely traditional grading method: a strict 1,000 points for the semester.

And this is what I’ve realized: Assessment and grading are two completely different things. Yes, students should know their strengths and weaknesses, and giving them a grade or points by assignment does not help them grow. On the other hand, the grade is a helpful summary of a student’s performance in your class — and a requirement in most schools at the end of the semester.

I’ve also realized that although I appreciate the no-zero philosophy, grades must reflect the combination of performance and effort. After all, to be a good student does not just mean knowing the content or being able to write a good essay. Rather, it means having the habits of being a good student.

The answer to the no-zeros debate is to separate big, required assignments from small, practice assignments. If a student misses a small assignment, she should receive a zero and be factored into the habits-of-work grade. But if a student misses a large assignment, which aligns with one of the major outcomes of the course, she should receive an incomplete and be required to complete the work, hopefully within a one-week window.

(Getting students to make up missing work, of course, is the hardest part. And one more thing: What’s the proper penalty for late work? More about those things in an upcoming post.)

What do you think about this grading controversy? Readers, I’d love to hear your viewpoints. 


  1. Julie Dow

    I’ve thought about this issue so much. I agree with what you’ve written here. The key problem is that making up the missing work part. For big projects, I will accept them basically up until the end of the grading period. But what about the student who turns in nothing (I have a student this year who has literally failed to turn in a single piece of work) but who probably meets at least some of the standards for 7th grade Language Arts (I say probably because she has given me so little to assess). What grade do I assign this student? Her failing grade reflects only her lack of personal responsibility and not her skills. This is what I still struggle with.

  2. Mark Isero

    Hi Julie. If the student “probably” meets some of the standards but hasn’t turned in anything, then I don’t think I can help her. But I also see the point that school (particularly middle school) is for practice, that it’s up to teachers and parents and the school to help students improve their habits, especially personal responsibility.

    This is partly why I don’t like how grades are usually just an average of all your scores. If you improve in something, you should be rewarded — as long as you weren’t purposely doing bad at the beginning!

    Ah, grading. 🙂

    Another thing we need to think about is how we set up our gradebooks. Not enough teachers think deeply about what they’re doing when they assign points or percentages to certain categories. What do you think about this?

  3. Chris Mercer

    My knee jerk reaction is, no work handed in = zero points. This is largely because I don’t give many assignments worth over 15 points. So, a zero won’t be zero out of one hundred. Actually, how can you justify NOT giving a zero for a missing assignment? Otherwise it’s free points. That doesn’t seem right.

    I give kids the chance to make up stuff and turn it in late, but without a clear school wide or at least department wide policy about late work, that can become a slippery slope where deadlines mean nothing. At my current school, I have seen the very worst of the late work policy. The expectations have deteriorated in so many classes that “turning in something” is the good enough-on time or not.

  4. Beth Silbergeld

    The weight of the zero is the heart of the matter for me. If it is a massive project, the ability to bounce back from a missing work. As a teacher, I did not have many zeros on my gradebook because I was able to intervene with students.

    This year, I graded student work for a teacher who did not finish the semester. How could I put zeros in for missing work without knowing how the work was assigned and the support given? On the other hand, I felt I should account for the fact that many students had not put in much effort due to the stressful classroom culture. What responsibility do we have to students if the quality of their learning experience is not what they deserve?

    As for grading, it must be handled gently. Communicating what students know is not easily done with a number and a letter. Teachers must talk to each other regularly to assess their assumptions about what students know and can do.

  5. Mark Isero

    I agree with Chris in that you can’t really give credit for nothing. At the same time, Beth makes a good point that it’s the teacher’s job to scaffold and to make every effort to intervene with students.

    My approach is to have many checkpoints on a large project so I know where students stand. But the fact remains that things sometimes happen at the last minute. That’s why I appreciated Caitlin’s work two years ago in English 10. My understanding is that on the first big due date, she called families, met with students, and intervened enough such that all students followed up to turn in the assignment within a week. After that, her turn-in rate went up to nearly 100 percent. It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth it.

    The message with grading — as with everything — is that we must show to our students that we care. If we give our students zeros without any conversation, then they get the message that we don’t care. That said, I still like the idea of deadlines and zeros in theory.

    • Dave Keller

      Hi Mark,
      I use a similar system of low point practice and high point mastery grading. However, I’m wondering how far to take it. Next year I’m thinking of assigning 3 distinct mastery assignments worth 70-80% of the grade. Have you ever gone that far? I’ve read that it works but feel nervous because it will require impeccable feedback from me on the practice assignments.

  6. Mark Isero

    Dave, I think that’s the way to go — as long as you think about your scaffolding, checkpoints, and deadlines (and what happens when students miss the final turn-in deadline). Standard-based grading says that we should grade only on learning, not on effort/practice, but I disagree. I like the idea of 70-80 percent of substantive stuff and 20-30 percent on effort/habits of work. Overall, as with all things, simplicity is best!

  7. Dan Goldfield


    Part of the complexity of the issue, for me at least, is that grades are both a measure of the student’s mastery and the student’s development. Although possible for a student to not master as subject and earn an “low” point total (whatever that means), it is entirely possible for a student to develop student and people skills as well as advance their understanding of a subject. Conversely, it is also possible for a student to score high because of a natural aptitude, but not develop the many other skills we should be helping our students develop. In the end, some teachers cut the baby, focusing on mastery or development. I’ve some teachers explicitly articulate this difference for their students and it is what I plan to do next year.
    Cheers mate…I’m enjoying the blog.

  8. Mark Isero

    I agree with you that grades should reflect not just a student’s academic work but also her habits of work. This is different, of course, than what most pure standard-based grading people think.

    Grading “development” (or “improvement”), on the other hand, seems really challenging to me. I like the idea of grading for improvement, but I don’t know how to do it well.

    I remember a PE class I took in middle school that was graded on “improvement.” My friends and I chose to do really poorly on the first assessment so we could demonstrate improvement at the end.

    One more thing: Some teachers organize their grading in categories and then take the students’ highest 2-3 scores. This is better than taking the mean, I think. Dan, have you heard of a “power score?”

    Thank you very much for your interest in the blog, Dan, and I hope that you continue reading and commenting. I appreciate your thoughts.

    • Jacob Aringo

      The power score is great way of assessing growth. The first try is weighted less than the last two tries. Though because of the limitations of many grading programs like PowerSchool, it is hard to do unless you manually weigh those assessments.

  9. Jacob Aringo

    Grades for our students seems to be more of punishment or reward rather than a symbol of feedback. There is a huge disconnect between one’s grade and what a student understands. For example, I had a student who had an A but is unable to do some of the skills needed to do some chemistry problem solving. There needs to be some system of evaluation so that students know what grade he/she got and it’s consistent with what the teacher gives as a grade. Constant communication and checking for understanding of those expectation is so important so that everyone is on the same page of how work is assessed.

    • Mark Isero

      Yes: Assessment and grading are two completely different things. You make a great point about the debate between effort-based grades and standard-based ones.

      I used to be a big proponent of SBG, but then I realized that part of learning is about consistent, day-to-day habits of work and of effort. I think I agree with Dan, above, about how grades have to be somehow related to growth, too.

      That’s why I’m intrigued by your power score. I never was able to make it work in my classes, but I’m interested in knowing more. Thanks again, Jacob, for your substantive comments!

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