A “no zero” policy is receiving media attention and stirring controversy and resistance in Greenville, South Carolina.

Establishing a “no zero” policy is counter-intuitive for most people since it seems to work against a sense of fairness, and as those who oppose the policy typically respond, a “no zero” policy seems to encourage laziness and even passing students along who do no work.

However, a “no zero” policy is the right thing to do both statistically and academically—but only if that policy is part of wider assessment practices that support dropping zeroes as part of the grading system.

First, I recommend reading carefully an analysis that shows why assigning zeroes is flawed in a traditional A-F grading system in which the F range is often 50-60 points while all other grade ranges are 10 or fewer points. As Cristea explains:

The flaw in the system is that a 100-point grading scale does not mathematically equalize zeros to have the same weight as other scores. This paper presents the view that zeros are not fair to anyone including students, parents, teachers, and society as a whole.

The statistical flaw of zeroes and a disproportionate F range lead us to the equity problem. As Rick Wormeli has noted, fair isn’t always equal. So let me lay out briefly the broader assessment practices and concerns that must be in place when a “no zero” policy is adopted (and the “no zero” policy and these issue below should be implemented).

Schools, teachers, parents, and students must set aside grading as a system of rewards and punishments, and begin to see grading as a subset of assessment, which must be used as a system of feedback and student revision to support student learning.

In other words, assessment, tests, and grades must become part of learning and not the conclusion of learning.

In that context, student assignments, tests, and performances must be viewed as obligations by the students; in short, they must be done.

Ideally, all students would complete all assignments with mastery at the same rate, but in the real world, that will never happen. Thus, everyone must begin to worry more about students learning than at what rate they learn or if they learn simultaneously with other students.

Here, I must emphasize that assigning a zero for incomplete or skipped assignments is fundamentally no different than simply passing a student along because both practices prove that the assignment never mattered. The analogy I offer here is student assignments are similar to medicine prescribed by a doctor; neither the student nor the patient benefits if the assignment/medicine is simply ignored. In short, the only option is to do the assignment.

My alternative to the zero is that students must complete fully all work assigned or no credit can be assigned for the course; this approach addresses the problems with both assigning zeroes and simply passing students who do not complete the work.

That said, a key practice supporting all of this is requiring and allowing student revision without belaboring over trying to keep every student at the same pace or number of revisions.

I have implemented this in writing courses for over three decades, and students quickly learn that the sooner they try and the more fully they participate, the sooner they can move on; this is a much more authentic and academically positive and intrinsic motivation than punishing/rewarding with grades.

In the context of so-called content courses (wile problematic, many see writing as process, not content, although I disagree on that point), allowing zeroes or even low grades on assessments of acquiring content sends a message to students that some content simply doesn’t matter—if a student makes a zero or 63, and the class simply moves on to the next topic.

This traditional practice, I believe, has a much more negative impact on learning than any downside to “no zero” policies.

A “no zero” policy, then, is not an isolated issue, but it one important reform within a larger revision of how assessments, tests, and grades can and should be used in formal education to support the learning of all students—a messy and unpredictable process that should not be shackled to a traditional system of grading that is neither statistically nor academically sound.

For Further Reading

Rick Wormeli’s Responses to a Parent of a High-Achieving Student with Concerns About Grading Changes

Are Zeroes Fair?: An Analysis of Grading Practices, James Cristea

The Gray Areas of Grading, Rick VanDeWeghe

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work