No More Zeros

One education researcher calls it “the academic death penalty”: A grade of zero on a 100-point scale, a mark that spells disaster for a student’s class average.

“It’s such an extreme score in a percentage grading system,” says Thomas R. Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky. “To recover from that single zero, a kid would have to get at least nine perfect papers.”

As educators across the country move toward standards-based grading—which often replaces the percentage system with rubrics linked to a 1-to-4, four-point grading scale—a growing number of schools no longer give zeros for late, missing or incomplete work.

Even schools that retain percentage-based grades sometimes set their bottom mark at a mathematically more forgiving 50—10 points below the lowest passing score—to replicate the 10-point interval that separates A’s from B’s, and B’s from C’s.

The zero-out-of-100 is just one of the traditional grading practices schools are rethinking as they seek to report student performance more accurately.

These efforts, which often accompany broader conversations about the reliability and purpose of assessment, encompass a variety of new approaches—everything from awarding separate grades for academic achievement and classroom behavior to permitting students to redo failed work.

Changing grading methods that teachers and parents remember from their own school days can be slow, messy and controversial. But advocates say the work is essential.

Grading “is this hidden reservoir of opportunities for people to fundamentally change and improve what happens in classrooms,” says Joe Feldman, CEO of California-based Crescendo Education Group, which works with schools and districts on grading practices.

“If we don’t address the inequities and inaccuracies of our grades, then all of the work that we do with our curriculum becomes for naught.”

Mathematically irrational?

At the root of new approaches to grading lies dissatisfaction with the unreliability and imprecision of traditional methods. Even within the same building, grading practices may vary widely.

One English teacher docks points for late work; her colleague awards extra credit for contributions to the canned-food drive. A grade supposedly describing a student’s algebra proficiency also incorporates a reward for effort or a punishment for tardiness.

“Is the grade that you’re receiving really measuring your skill level or is it measuring compliance?” says Catherine E. Vannatter, curriculum and instructional coach at 1,450-student Bryan Station High School, part of Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky.

New grading practices—including giving separate grades for behavior and achievement, replacing zero with 50 on the 100-point scale, and developing rubrics—are among the reforms the school is implementing to address a history of low achievement.

“We had kids who were passing their classes, but when you look at data on a nationwide vetted reading assessment, they’re not on grade level,” she says. “There’s a disconnect there.”

That disconnect ultimately shortchanges students, says school improvement coach and former principal Tim Westerberg, the author of Charting a Course to Standards-Based Grading(ASCD, 2016).

“Too many kids come to college with respectable grades, thinking they’re prepared to do well, only to find out they have to take remedial courses,” Westerberg says.

Awarding zero-out-of-100 grades for missing or subpar work poses special problems. When a passing mark is 60 or 65, setting failure at zero means “you’ve got a scale two-thirds of which is levels of failure”—a mathematical and pedagogical irrationality, says Guskey. Furthermore, a zero explains little about a students’ knowledge.

Did students skip the homework because they understood nothing or because they knew the material cold? Or were they just too busy rehearsing the school play? Whatever the reason, an average-killing zero can leave students so discouraged they stop trying, ultimately increasing course failures and dropout rates.

“Those are really counterproductive grading practices,” says Michael Anderson, area administrator of schools in the Jordan School District (52,000 students), in suburban Salt Lake City.

The system has launched grading reforms—including permitting do-overs on failed assessments and omitting homework from the calculation of course grades—in its 10 middle schools.

“You never want to get to the point where the student feels like there’s no hope and they’re going to give up on learning,” Anderson says.

Demand more of students and educators

Faced with the inaccuracy of traditional grading practices, schools are trying new approaches. The relatively straightforward include setting the bottom of the grading scale at 50; more far-reaching changes include calculating course grades by giving extra weight to more recent grades, instead of by simply averaging marks across a semester.

To ensure that grades for academic achievement reflect only subject-matter knowledge, some schools now give separate marks for behaviors such as punctuality, courtesy, meeting deadlines and even compliance with anti-plagiarism rules.

Schools revising grading policies may also encourage teachers to let students redo inadequate work until they get it right. Although such approaches are sometimes called “no-fail grading,” educators say that term is misleading: Students who don’t produce acceptable work don’t earn credit, although report cards may show incompletes instead of Fs.

Rather than coddling students, as critics sometimes claim, such approaches demand more of them, and more of their teachers, who must commit to offering whatever help students need to master academic content, say grading-reform advocates like Feldman.

“Giving a kid a zero takes the kid off the hook, and it takes the teacher off the hook,” says Darwin Lehmann, superintendent of rural Iowa’s Forest City Community School District, which is phasing in grading reforms in its middle and high school. “The consequence for a zero should be doing the work.”

Whether grading reform by itself improves student achievement isn’t clear.

“There’s really no reason why it would, because we’re not changing instruction and we’re not changing what we teach kids,” says Guskey, the Kentucky professor. “We’re basically just changing the way we communicate about their learning.”

But modest evidence suggests that improved communication, especially around student performance on clearly delineated proficiency standards, can help parents and teachers better target interventions, Guskey says.

Feldman, of Crescendo Education Group, cites data showing a decline in D’s and F’s, and a closer correlation between grades and standardized-test scores, in schools where he’s helped reform grading policies. Educators report anecdotal evidence of higher teacher and student satisfaction.

What are grades for?

Adopting new grading practices can be challenging, however. Reforms take hold only if teachers embrace them, and achieving buy-in requires a bottom-up process of study, reflection and gradual phase-in that can take years, say some educators who have launched grading reforms.

Districts may have to hire outside consultants. Schools may have to find blocks of professional development time and tweak computerized gradebooks programmed for traditional methods.

“The process can be messy at times,” says Anderson, of the Jordan School District. “Getting people to come around to new ideas and new notions is difficult.”

Slip-ups can bring political backlash. In 2009, the Texas legislature passed a so-called “truth-in-grading” law barring school districts from replacing zero-out-of-100 grades with higher minimum marks, after some teachers complained that new mandates compromised academic freedom.

“Parents and teachers, but particularly parents, will say, ‘What? The kid gets 50 points for doing nothing? What kind of standards do you have here at this school?’” says Westerberg, the school-improvement coach.

Ultimately, such disputes go to the heart of the fundamental question underlying grading reform: What are grades for? Are they meant to communicate learning progress or to rank students for employers and colleges?

“Fundamentally, we don’t believe that our purpose is to sort students,” says Emilie Hard, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning services in the 20,000-student Issaquah School District, southeast of Seattle. “Our whole purpose in public education is to get every student to the finish line.”