No-Zero Policy: Students Don’t See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do

wootang5No-Zero Policy: Students Don’t See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do

by Heather M. Stocker, TeachThought Intern

Many teachers see zeroes as punitive, but teaching 11th Grade English has taught me that the least motivational force on the planet is a zero. Though many teachers would chaff under the prospect of a zero, many students simply shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes and say, “Whatev.” This can be very frustrating for teachers and parents, and worst of all doesn’t support the learning process. Which might suggest a new kind of no-zero policy.

Our first mistake is believing that students see zeroes the way we do, but students do not see them the way we do. As teachers we know that zeroes are bad for several reasons:

  1. Zeroes means nothing to most students and are not a motivator for improvement.

  2. They do not reflect the student’s ability or lack of ability.

  3. They can make a student’s grade tank quickly.

  4. A zero does not teach a life skill.

wootang6What is the Purpose of Grading?

When reevaluating your thoughts about zeroes, you have to get into the grit of grading. What is your purpose–assessment of skill level or assessment of behavior?

If you choose to assess skill level, then you need those zeroes gone in order to get an accurate view of what the student knows and doesn’t know.

If you’re assessing for behavior, then you can keep the zeroes, because they stand in for nothing other than a failure to work—a behavior.

Ultimately, our goal is to teach our content, but zeroes often teach something else as well: that it’s okay not to do the work. I have often heard students say, “It’s okay if I get a zero on that paper, I’ll make it up elsewhere in the grade.” Clearly this strategy has worked for them in the past. When I hear this, it’s time to sit down (again) and really discuss the purpose behind the assignment. I explain that zeroes are not an option and each one comes with a consequence.

Oftentimes, teachers say they are teaching students that they can’t be late on assignments, that in the real world, if you’re late with work you get fired. For better or for worse, school is nothing like the real world. School is certainly valuable for building work ethic and education to be used in the real world, but it is a false assumption to say it’s a real-world environment. no matter how authentic we try to make it. Ultimately, we need to let go of this concept in order to work with the reality we’ve been given and deal with zeroes with a more direct approach.

We’re also undermining kids’ ‘stick-to-it-ness’ when we allow them to get zeroes. By allowing zeroes, we’re giving them the message that they don’t have to be persistent in their learning.

We’re also telling kids the assignment wasn’t that important anyway—they can get a zero on it and no one can or will do anything about it.

Is that really the message we want to send?

And more importantly, how should we design no-zero policies in light of this–if we should at all?

Image attribution flickr user wootang5


  • This is an interesting piece, but I do not like its ambiguity. I am hoping it’s purposeful to start a discussion. I understand for sure that there are students who are not motivated at all by a zero – but that’s just as sweeping a generality as what was stated in this post that students aren’t motivated by zeros – some actually are! I do want to find a way to make sense of this “no-zero” policy (because I ultimately like the IDEA of it), but here are my qualms:

    1) Given that zeros don’t do anything (I’ll argue this later) – how do you “not let a student get away with taking a zero”? Detention I guess, but then what? What do you do when they do nothing on a test? Have them re-take it? When – during class (they miss instruction) during detention? Would this teach them they don’t have to prepare the first time?

    2) Zeros are important in at the very least quizzes/tests/assessments. If a student literally cannot complete anything correctly on an assessment, why should they receive anything other than a zero? And again – if they do it over – what does that teach?

    I’ve had some teacher friends have a policy of students being able to re-do quizzes to allow for growth to occur and all students did is take advantage by doing poorly on the first one so they know the [types of] questions and then prepare really well before the second opportunity.

    • Excellent points, Andrew. Re-doing tests to show growth? Highly questionable. What’s happening is at the student has now seen the 1st test and has had time to go back and do the prep he didn’t bother to do the 1st time. His grade on the retest is therefore pretty much guaranteed to be higher. No surprise there and I would never refer to it as growth. Reminds me of the practice I’ve seen among some of my colleagues who pride “study guides” which are 95% identical to the summative test. No surprise that the grades are sky-high.

    • Great blog post! I don’t know, maybe other teachers have found this, but I found that turn in rates actually increased for me with first submissions. It takes some of the heat and sting out of “Oh my god, what if it’s not perfect??” Because reworking is where our learning is (and provides practice), I found kids were more willing to take risks with their work.

      The other thing this issues addresses is classroom management. When I look back over my high school career (I teach college now), the kids I had the most problems with were the ones who had no hope. They put all their energy into bravado or whatever. But given hope: they reworked assignments and completed their work. When the mind is engaged, there’s less opportunity for acting out.

      -Heather Stocker

      • There’s no need for a No Zero policy in order for a teacher to allow for work to be redone. That is a long held practice by most good teachers. As for the old excuse about engaged students not acting out…ok, I’ll concede that students do tend to remain on task when they are interested in what they are learning. However, they are still required and expected to remain engaged whether or not they are interested. This is yet another LIFE SKILL. The ability to sustain effort when not being entertained is critically important if we have any hope of producing functioning young adults. If I had the magic power to create lessons that were guaranteed to be rivetingly exciting 100% of the time, such that no student would ever miss my class or fail to turn in my assignment, I would NOT use it. Thank God I didn’t grow up in this period. I can only imagine how useless and how unemployed I’d be.

  • Honestly, I am stunned…simply stunned by this utter and complete nonsense. Children are human beings not aliens with a completely “other” mindset. In 25 years I’ve seen it all…from Whole Language-where we were told not to worry about teaching grammar, spelling and punctuation but just to allow the students to “enjoy the process of learning new words,” resulting in a generation that doesn’t know a verb from a noun, to this “No Zero Policy” crap. I recently moved to a new school that employs this horrendous practice and had I’d been told during the interview process that this school is in the business of people-pleasing, (aka parents and school board members) rather than preparing children to be responsible adults, I would NEVER have accepted the position. It’s clear to me that the ONLY motivation behind this insidious practice is to make it as easy as possible for students to APPEAR to be doing well academically. The actual truth is that the tail has been wagging the dog in so many American families for so long that parents now fear having ANY requirements for their children and now schools are following suit in order to appease parents, superintendents, etc.. The idea that student failure is really the failure of the teacher is absolutely laughable but I definitely see the usefulness of such a concept. Blame the teacher who makes so little money, (even with a Master’s degree,) that she can hardly keep the lights on and threaten her with termination if she doesn’t comply with ACADEMIC FRAUD! Now sit back and watch that same teacher, who already works 10, 20+ hours a week overtime FOR FREE, scramble to get those numbers where admin wants them to be…AND if that means giving Johnny 4 months to turn in a home work assignment with NO PENALTY or better yet…just plug in a FRAUDULENT 50 in place a the ZERI he’s EARNED, so be it! Then, a few years down the road we send them into the world equipped with the notion that their failure is really always someone else’s failure and that they are WONDERFUL just as they are! Shame on you! You’re complicit in the utter undoing of our society and will be responsible for the ensuing cultural failure that WILL follow this debacle. I, for one, will NOT be complicit in this. This policy is tantamount to academic malpractice and I for one will have no part of it. God help us all when these kids hit the real world…and PLEASE GOD, let none of these kids end up becoming the person in my nursing home in charge of giving me my meds.

  • I don’t know where you got the idea that zeros don’t mean anything to kids. I was a kid once and I knew what a zero meant. In fact, I had a crystal clear understanding of the concept. My students know what zeros mean. They ask me about them, (with quite a significant degree of concern, thank God,) whenever they see them online…why would they do that if they were meaningless? Seems to me that you’ve simply made this up.
    Whatever the source, you need to revisit this notion. It’s nonsensical and silly. There is no way anyone who supports a No Zero policy…aka…a Zero Accountability policy…can avoid the fact that at the moment they accept substandard work or work that is woefully late, that they are teaching the child that it’s totally acceptable to not do well the 1st time, that it’s totally acceptable to not be punctual, that it’s totally fine to turn work in when they get around to it. In that moment, you are guilty of educational/academic malpractice. At that same moment you are also teaching the students that work hard and consistently turn in good work, on time, that punctuality, responsibility and diligence are NOT valued by you. There’s NO WAY you can avoid this fact.
    So, at the end of the day the child has learned what? The GDP of Egypt? The meaning of a unitary government? So what? It won’t matter a bit to him when he’s looking for a job and can’t figure out why he keeps getting fired. You know what will matter? The LIFE SKILLS he DIDN’T LEARN in YOUR classroom! But then…he’ll still have that homework paper from you from way back when with a big smiley face on it. I wonder if he’ll be able to pay his rent with it.

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