The no-zero policy is a hotly debated and emotionally charged topic on the national scene. Letters to the editors and blog comments from angry citizens flare up whenever districts or schools adopt the policy. One letter to the editor in my community stated, “I’m appalled that leaders don’t punish no kids for bad work. Kid’s got be held accountable.”
Aside from the grammar, that line may have come right out of the Hunger Games. Fifty years of brain research and decades of assessment strategies all fail to mention “punishment” as a successful motivational tool.
If you’re working in an online or blended environment, your students likely face unique barriers not faced at the traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Many students, parents, and schools are new to the virtual learning environment. Online teachers have students who are spread out across the state or country, and there is a wide variety of student support from school to school.
Using a method to assess student performance that promotes “justified punishment” might not be the route to go in today’s learning environment. The heart of a no-zero policy is not an attack on the number 0. It is, instead, a reevaluation of the weight . . . the disproportional weight . . . of failing grades. A better name for the no-zero policy would be “No Disproportional Grade Weighting Policy, “ which I’m sure is the title of someone’s master’s thesis.
For example, if your school grades on a 10-point scale, passing grades (A, B, C and D) are broken down in increments of 10 from 60 to 100, but there is a 60-point spread for an F, which gives a failing grade a weight that’s 6 times heavier than any one passing grade. And it’s a margin that is often mathematically impossible for struggling students to overcome.
Why would we stack failing grades against a struggling student? Did we intend to do that? What purpose does it serve, and how does it help the student find success?
Those are the questions at the heart of the no-zero policy.
GPA calculations are very different, though. When you calculate GPA, all grades, including failing grades, are given equal weight. There are actually five grades on a 4-point scale as A = 4 and F = 0. On a basic 4-point scale, a failing grade accounts for 20 percent of the total distribution, and each passing grade also accounts for 20 percent of the final GPA. This is a fair distribution of grades, and it’s the one that colleges use to assess student performance.
The no-zero policy does the same thing. It establishes a fair weighting of grades and does not discourage failing students from wanting to continue by making it mathematically impossible for them to pass.
The arguments against a no-zero policy generally fall into three categories: 1) it’s not punitive enough, 2) it doesn’t reflect the real world, 3) it’s confused with a no-failing policy.
Let’s take a look at the first argument: A no-zero policy is not punitive enough.
Why should a student who did no work be rewarded with the same grade that a student who tried to do the assignment but still failed?
Short answer: A 60 is not a reward. Not for the student who did not do the work, nor for the student who tried and failed.
Educators agree that grades should inform instructional decisions; document both students’ and teachers’ progress; and provide feedback to the students, parents, and teachers about what was learned and what students are able to do with that knowledge.
Moreover, a 60 indicates that the student has failed to meet expectations. In actuality, we know that anything under 80 is non-mastery, yet most classrooms move students on to “solving inequalities” even if they haven’t passed or mastered “variables and expressions.” A 0, 60, 70, really tell us the same thing. The student hasn’t mastered the content. If the next lesson builds on this one, the student isn’t ready to move forward.
Some people are intent on distinguishing between a solid F and a weak F, but the reasons for doing that tend to come down to punishment. Again, after 50 years of brain research, we know that punishment seldom gets the desired results that we want, but it does make us feel like we are in control . . . of something.
If our goal is to have students succeed, then we need to examine what practices will lead them to finding that success.
The second argument is that a no-zero policy does not prepare students for the real world.
Students who are not achieving are often dealing with the real world in many ways that we can’t imagine. A student without parents, living with strangers, working a job 5 hours after school each night, caring for an ill relative probably has an idea of how the real world works. Although, he or she might not know how school relates to the real world.
This is where as educators we have to decide if we want to exacerbate the problem by choosing to be punitive, or to ameliorate that problem and be student centered.
The third argument is that students cannot fail with a no-zero policy.
How do you hold students accountable if they can’t fail?
Keep in mind that a no-zero policy is not a “no-failing” policy. Students who do not work will indeed fail. Schools that adopt a no-zero policy still have students who fail.
The unfortunate thing with a no-zero policy is that the lowest grade is typically a 60, and many people aren’t ready for that as a base number even if they are okay with measurements like 12 inches in a foot, or 3 feet in a yard, or .31 parsecs in a lightyear . . . but when it comes to meting out punishment with student grades, they need the full 100-point metric roll out.
A 4-point scale can keep everyone happy, even for those who have a fascination with the number 0 (don’t forget that the great educator Socrates didn’t even have access to the number 0!). Its equal grade distribution will keep at-risk and under-achieving students mathematically in the game while allowing for sensible assessments.