Solving the Problems of Zeros in Grading

Solving the Problems of Zeros in Grading

Originally published: 06.25.13

Much ado has been made in recent years about the problem of zeros in grading. Some districts have responded by stipulating that the lowest grade teachers can assign students is 50% rather than a zero. Districts that enact such policies have no intention of giving students credit when no credit was deserved. A 50% is still a failing grade. They do so to eliminate the devastating effects of a zero in a percentage grading system.

To recover from a single zero percentage grade, a student must achieve a minimum of nine perfect papers. Attaining that level of performance would challenge the most talented students and may be impossible for most others, especially those who struggle in learning. A single zero can doom a student to failure, regardless of what dedicated effort or level of performance might follow.

Certainly students need to know that there are consequences for what they do and do not do in school. Malingering should be penalized. But should the penalty be so severe that students have no chance of restitution or recovery regarding their grade?

Grading should communicate information about student learning in school, not punish students in ways that make recovery from transgressions impossible.

Ironically, the true culprit in this matter is not minimum grades or the zero — it’s the percentage grading system. There is nothing sacred about percentages in grading. We use them today because we use electronic grading programs developed by software engineers with a fondness for a 0–100 scale.

In a percentage grading system, to move from a B to an A generally requires improvement of 10%, say from 80% to 90%. But to move from a zero to a minimum passing grade requires six or seven times that improvement, usually from zero to 60% or 70%. Two-thirds of the marks in a percentage grading system denote levels of failure. Only one-third of the marks are considered passing.

The solution to this dilemma is simply to do away with percentages in grading and use integers instead: 0-4. Many schools use integers already in calculating grade point averages (GPAs). Colleges and universities throughout the U.S. use the integer grading system as well. If finer gradations are needed, tenths, hundredths, or thousandths can be included.

In an integer system, teachers can keep the zero and assign it to students when such a grade is deserved. Improving from a zero to a passing grade for those students means moving from zero to one, not from zero to 60% or 70%. It makes recovery possible. It also helps make grades more accurate reflections of what students have learned and accomplished in school.

Assigning fair and meaningful grades to students will continue to challenge educators at all levels. It requires thoughtful and informed professional judgment by teachers, along with an abiding concern for what best serves the interests of students and their families.
The purpose of grading should be to communicate information about student learning in school, not to punish students in ways that makes recovery from transgressions impossible.

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