What about those zeros in the grade book?

As we know, it is quite common for a teacher to issue a zero for missing, neglected, or late work.  However, does the zero actually reflect what the student has learned or can do? 

Furthermore, when we consider the practice of averaging scores, is it mathematically accurate to include the zero?  The weight of a zero is so much more powerful than anything above 60 resulting in the near impossibility for a student to compensate for that zero by receiving high marks on subsequent assignments.  A zero unfairly skews the average.  Imagine a weatherman is recording daily high temperatures in order to calculate the average high temperature for the week but he misses the reading for Wednesday.  Would he just put in a zero for that day?  So why do teachers think it is OK to include zeros for missing assignments when averaging scores?

It seems zeros are then assigned in order to punish students for missing, neglected or late work.  If grades are used as a punishment then how can they be an accurate communication of achievement?  Is the punishment supposed to motivate students to reform?  I don’t think anyone anywhere can find evidence that demonstrates that zeros and low grades encourage students to complete work.  Grading gurus such as Ken O’Conner and Thomas Guskey would argue that assigning zeros actually lowers motivation and inhibits student learning (O'Conner) (Guskey).  So why do we do it?

I am a firm believer that if a student has not completed the work, then an “Incomplete” should be awarded until the work is complete.  If I don’t have enough evidence to properly assess a student’s achievement levels, then I will record an “I”.

For late work we need to find other consequences.  I’m still trying to find the perfect solution for this.  We have been trying to find a satisfying, fair, manageable, and consistent manner to distribute consequences for late work.  We tried a lunch homework detention but that was ineffective due to time constraints.  In one of my classes the fear of being assigned to scrub the lab floors and lab benches has kept late work at a near zero.   This segues into a discussion on motivation, doesn’t it?

For now, however, I’d like us to reconsider the practice of incorporating zeros into averages.  Do we really think it is a fair and accurate practice for reporting on student learning and achievement?  I, personally, do not.


Connor, Ken. How to grade for learning, K-12. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin, 2009. Print.

Guskey, Thomas R.. Practical solutions for serious problems in standards-based grading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009. Print.