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The Devastating Power of Zero

By March 22, 2013June 13th, 201612 Comments

I was recently working with a group of great educators in Illinois who were learning about McREL’s classroom recommendations on providing feedback, taken from our second edition of Classroom Instruction That Works, when I inadvertently opened a Pandora’s Box regarding the grading of missing or incomplete assignments.

Two of the recommendations from the book are:

  • Provide feedback that addresses what is correct and elaborates on what students need to do next.
  • Provide feedback appropriately in time to meet students’ needs.

Additionally, in our Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Bj Stone and I expand those recommendations by suggesting that teachers should allow students to rework their assignments until correct, based on the feedback they receive.

When discussing this with the Illinois educators, our conversation quickly moved to grading and the power of the zero.

While there was general agreement with the notion that the grades a student receives should accurately reflect that student’s understanding and mastery of the content, some of the educators felt that allowing students to rework missing or incomplete assignments was unfair to the other students who turned in their work on time and demonstrated higher levels of understanding on the first attempt. These educators felt that if a student didn’t complete an assignment, they should get a zero with no opportunity to rework the assignment after receiving feedback.

Which of these two approaches—giving zeros or allowing rework—leads to a final grade that more accurately reflects the student’s understanding and mastery of content?

To explore this, I gave the following scenario. During a unit, a teacher has two assessments and two assignments. Let’s look at three students and see how a zero given on one of the two assignments affects their final

 Assessment 1Assessment 2Assignment 1Assignment 2Final Grade

In the cases above, the zero given on Assignment 2 has dropped each of the student’s final grades significantly and, it can be argued, does not accurately reflect the overall learning that occurred. Now let’s look at the same three students and give them the opportunity to redo that missing or failed Assignment 2, based on the feedback we have provided. We will acknowledge the lateness of the work by giving them partial credit for the reworked assignment.

 Assessment 1Assessment 2Assignment 1Assignment 2Final Grade

By giving partial credit as compared to zero credit, Juan’s final grade went from 75% to 87.5%, and, looking across the row, I believe more accurately reflects the student’s true level of learning. The same can be said for Susan and Joe.

More importantly, if a zero is recorded with no chance to improve, the task quickly becomes insurmountable from the student’s perspective. If Juan had received two zeros rather than one, he would now be failing this unit and begin to see little hope of improving. Even if future assignments are done well and graded highly, it won’t be enough to pull his final score up to a satisfactory level. The exemplary work he did on the two assessments would be meaningless. Why then should he continue to try? Why should he pay attention? Why should he even come to class?

Zero is defined as the figure or symbol which stands for the absence of quantity. In education, it also stands for the absence of hope. Students should be allowed to rework based on their teacher’s good feedback, and, in the
process, change the power of zero from an absence of hope to hope for meaningful improvement.

Howard Pitler, Ed.D., is chief program officer at McREL, co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Jeff says:

    I’ve been saying this for years. When I was a classroom teacher, I switched to letter grades instead numerical grades. The lowest grades a student could get on any graded assignment or evaluation was F (which translated to something like 60 for computational purposes). They could also get an incomplete, which was more representative of their effort. A grade of zero simply was not considered.
    Considering that we really want kids to learn, we should also consider that having multiple opportunities to succeed makes sense. There should be no statute of limitations on achievement.

  • Thanks Jeff. I especially like your last line – There should be no statue of limitations on achievement. I would love to use it in some future articles.

  • Scott Carroll says:

    WHat happened to getting what you worked for? In today’s world hard work is rewarded, we need to quit babying students and telling everyone they win. We need to focus on installing work ethic and consequences. I have no problem letting students retest or make up work but giving them something they did not earn is wrong!

  • Al Smith says:

    I’m with Scott on this one. A 50% for work NOT submitted by deadline and allowed to rework, is not the expectation of post-secondary or even a Macdonalds summer job, so why do we not help build this social expectation into our real time assessment? When has lateness or not submitting duties been ok? Would we be ok with our bankers not doing tasks by payday? Or Real estate agents not preparing papers for signing as contracted? At some point, say Grade 10, we need to stop the constant extensions , however well intended, and build deadlines into tasks. Achievement isn’t just about understanding content but processes of learning, doing, working in a social context.

  • Scott and Al. Please don’t interprete my comments as babying students or not preparing them for life. I don’t mean that at all. What I am suggesting is that if a student has demonstrated mastery of the academic content, that’s what they content grade should reflect. If a student has “citizenship” issues, then “getting work in on time” should be included there. It should be possible to receive an “A” in Algebra II and a “D” in completes work on time. This will give both parents and learners a more honest reflection of what has and has not been mastered.
    I hear the “in the real world” argument frequently. Actually, in the real world we all live in, the quality of your work does overshadow some other factors, unless and until those factors begin present a larger problem. In the school setting for example, if end-of-term grades are due by noon on Friday, and for what ever reason, I don’t get my grades turned in until 3:00 pm on Friday, I might be a stern glance from the registrar or possibly even a conversation with an administrator, but I don’t get fired, or have my pay docked. If I show up 5 minutes late to an after school staff meeting I don’t get sent to the cafeteria for a detention, I quietly get into the meeting and try to catch up.
    The real purpose of the post was to highlight how few zeros need to be recorded before even the possibility of passing the class has evaporated. Once the learner cannot see any path to success, they disconnect, or even worse, become chronic attendance or discipline problems. Reward students for academic achievement and then separately address citizenship.

  • Art Reinhardt says:

    Students in my university classes are given full credit for resubmitted work. They are given partial credit for late work.
    At times, I marvel at how many technology programs allow students to self-pace work, support and guide, give immediate feedback, and engage the learners. Shouldn’t we as teachers be able to do a better job at providing feedback than giving the hopeless “zero”? Many of our software developers have figured it out.

  • Art, thank you for your post. When I read it, I immediately thought about a blog post from Dan Meyer titled Five Lessons On Teaching From Angry Birds That Have Nothing Whatsoever To Do With Parabolas Specifically #3 Give useful and immediate feedback and #4 Make it easy to recover from failure. Those two points are the essence of my post.

  • check it says:

    i don’t understand it

  • Mike says:

    We need to consider two points, first a grading system that 4 of the grading categories is a 10% point spread and the last is 59% is not mathematically fair. There are numerous ways to fix that.
    Second, if grading is meant to report the level of leaning mastered then students should be given as much time as they need, with no penalty for work that is eventually proficient. In your example I don’t think the late work does reflect the students learning. I would argue that Juan completely understands the material, and if the only thing pulling his grade down is a late assignment then that is not an accurate portrait of his learning.
    Now, do I believe that all of the non-academic factors such as on-time work, cooperation, etc should be reported? You bet, but not at the expensive of “muddying up” the academic grade… the two elements need to be reported separately….deciding on what that looks like for movement from one grade to the next.. etc is up for debate.

  • Daniel says:

    I will concede a zero can, on occasion, be effective to demonstrate the importance of adhering to expectations and deadlines. However, I would argue that the percentage of students that this will motivate to do better the next time is fractional compared to the number of students that the zero will discourage from putting any effort into future work.
    From my personal experiences, the detrimental effect of zero far outweighs the positives a zero may teach the student about expectations. I have found partial credit of 50% can teach the same lesson without punishing students disproportionately. Does no submitted work warrant a zero? Without a doubt. But aren’t compassion and understanding essential characteristics of professional educators? Therefore, shouldn’t minimal work at least receive minimal credit? Should a late assignment receive the same credit as one submitted on time? No. But, in the end, the devastating power of zero does not reflect student understanding and mastery of content. Punishment should fit the crime. Plagiarism and cheating deserve zeroes, not untimely submitted assignments.

  • Tammy says:

    This is a very timely discussion as the high school at which I teach implemented a “no zero” policy for the grade ten students this year. I completely agree with the detrimental affects a zero has when it is averaged with other marks. In addition, I would point out the effect a zero has on a student’s motivation. In my experience, students will accept a zero for an incomplete assignment and often become even less motivated to complete future assignments (the very opposite of what the zero is intended to do). My opinion is if an assignment was important enough to do, then all students must complete it. As teachers, we must be able to accurately assess that all curriculum outcomes are being met. If the student does not do an assignment, we have no way to evaluate their understanding.
    Our school jumped on this bandwagon a little too quickly. There were not adequate expectations put in place, and teachers were not consistent. However, I feel that zeros are not appropriate marks. I also feel that feedback must be provided within a couple of days of an assignment or assessment being completed. This causes problems for teachers and students who are submitting late. Thankfully, I am a math teacher who has taught the same course a number of times. I have past copies of assignments I can use for “late” students. This allows me to provide feedback, without giving the answers to those students who still need to demonstrate their understanding.
    Lastly, I’d like to point out that this expectation for work to be completed is explained to students at the beginning of the semester, and reiterated numerous times. They quickly see they will be required to do the work, and the chronically “late” students begin to complete their assignments on time.

  • Zero has a particularly devastating effect in the elementary classroom. Students at this level will quickly equate a grade of zero to mean they are a failure. Some districts are unfortunately still using a grading scale where an F is any score of 69 or below. Does a student mastering over 2/3 of the material, or 69%, deserve a failing grade? How low of an F does a teacher need to give to send the message (to students, parents, and other support staff) that there is an issue?
    Standards-Based Grading (SBG) is a potential solution for these and other issues with traditional 0-100 grading. In SBG, a student’s mastery level of objectives is valued over the completion of assignments. In most SBG implementations, zero is unacceptable since students are required to retest for mastery. When properly implemented, SBG grades are not arbitrarily assigned, based on assignment completion, or used to sort, select, and compare students.

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