The Implications of Grading Without Zeros

For most of us, grades were always a part of school. Work was assigned, it was completed, and we were given a score reflective of our efforts and understandings. At regular intervals, these scores were compiled and sent home on report cards to inform our parents or guardians of our progress.

Over time, grades have become a ritual of the educational process that most students, parents, teachers, and administrators have come to expect as a measuring stick of progress and achievement.

Recently, there has been growing support for removing grades from the educational landscape altogether. Instead of A’s and F’s or 100s and 0s, there have been pushes for more authentic evaluative criteria like standards-based proficiency or relying exclusively on descriptive feedback. It makes sense; successfully facilitating a growth mindset in students involves assessment styles tied to more intrinsically relevant experiences than arbitrary numerical scales.

For all the merits of the no-grade argument, the reality for most districts is that simply abandoning grades altogether is a difficult proposition. For better or worse, parents know from their own experiences what grades are; there are entrenched expectations about their importance and the messages they imply.

On a logistical level, schools have policies about extra-curricular participation tied to specific grade qualifications. Colleges and employers still ask about things like GPA and class rank when evaluating candidates.

In response, some schools have adjusted the traditional grading model with a modified numerical scale that starts at 50% rather than 0%. In doing so, stakeholders still receive the quantifiable progress indicators of grades, but it changes the entire conversation about student agency in earning them.

The positives of a no-zero policy

Removing zeros from grading policies takes some of the punitive sting out of the evaluative equation. For instance, when a missing assignment is scored as a zero, it has a disproportionately negative affect on a student’s overall grade average. As a few zeros pile up, a student could quickly become mathematically unable to rebound.

The subsequent feeling of inevitable failure disincentives students from refocusing and recommitting to learning and growth. If no matter how hard they try students are shown that they don’t have a pathway to success, where is the motivation to engage with content as an active learner?

When grades are viewed as a punishment for non-compliance instead of a demonstrated assessment of mastery, they lose their worth.

By calibrating the bottom of the grading scale to 50%, it greatly increases students’ opportunities to recover from poor performances. Simply put, if a student has a 0% and a 100% on two equally weighted assignments, they average out to a 50% – still a failing grade. However, if the 0% is replaced by a 50%, that average increases to a 75%.

Looking at that same performance from a letter–grade perspective, the first scenario shows a student that the average of the lowest F and the highest A is still an F. According to many grading scales, the second scenario averages out to a C.

There is a variety of ways to shift grading policies towards more earnest reflections of student understanding. Teachers and school districts have increasingly begun to employ progressive assessment models including standards-based grading or narrative-based evaluations to replace traditional, numerical alternatives.

What these alternative methods have in common is the elimination of the devastating effect of a zero on an average; an emphasis is placed on the learning process rather than a numerical score. In each case, the hope is that student mindsets can shift away from striving to pass and, instead, refocus on content mastery.

A major problem with a no-zero policy

So, why isn’t a no-zero policy the norm? For all the benefits, there are also concerns.

One of the largest of said issues is a diminished degree of student accountability – a crucial executive function skill students need to develop to be successful.

Life is full of deadlines and obligations that, if unmet, carry real consequences. Students need opportunities to develop the planning, management, and coping skills required to see tasks through to completion.

By removing zeros and other grades below 50%, students can receive what amounts to half credit in a traditional grading scale for any assignment. While students have a better chance of recovering from a poor performance, it also sends a message that a true lack of effort will still be rewarded.

Sure, a 50% isn’t much of a reward, but when it is given to a student does little more than put a name on a paper or scribble down a quick sentence, it still creates a notable imbalance between the effort and the payoff. This can be an especially difficult notion for some teachers and parents to accept.

Weighing the options

There are plenty of positives associated with progressive approaches like recalibrating the grading scale or eliminating grades altogether. That said, there is a base-level understanding of traditional grade scales and how they are used to hold students accountable for the effort they do or do not make.

The former represents a student-focused shift toward making assessment more of genuine process while the latter prepares students for a world where lack of production really does come with a cost.

Like with most things in education, shifting paradigms as weighty as grading takes immense effort, research, pragmatism, and buy-in that many districts may not be willing to tackle. Then again, doing something just because it’s the way it has always been done is no real rationale, either.

As such, teachers, administrators, and school districts must look to their students’ needs when selecting the most appropriate ways to evaluate, assess, and reward effort.