The Value of Zero

As a classroom teacher I have mixed feelings about a no-zero-policy being implemented in schools.  I want to begin by saying that I am very thankful neither my school board nor my principal have dictated a policy about giving or not giving zeros to students for work that was assigned but never received.  I appreciate my professional opinion being valued and trusted.  Next, I will willingly admit to not being a “math guy.”  I fully admit to failing math 20 when I was in high school, to taking no physics, and to still not knowing my multiplication tables from 1-12.  That’s what calculators are for.  Thankfully, this isn’t a math debate; I just wanted to put that out there in case I say something that happens to go against the principles of math logic.  This is about grading policies.  I also promise to try to stay focused on this issue without wandering into related subjects about whether it’s even necessary to grade students, how we categorize grades, or why we have multiple levels of grades (satisfactory vs proficient vs excellence, etc.).  I’ll try to save those for future posts.

What is the value of a zero?  I like the idea of zero as a placeholder, the idea that zero has no true value.  The idea that it’s not actually a number that represents what a student is capable of doing, except in the odd cases where the student actually completed the work but does it so poorly as to earn a zero.  Even in these cases, I’d like to argue that this grade should be a placeholder with the expectation that the work will be redone after additional learning.  Zeros should be viewed this way:  They are a grade that has been given as a placeholder until the student completes the work.  Zeros symbolize the fact that a student still needs to do the assigned work.

Of course, other symbols could be used.  The “incomplete,” for example, is one candidate that many educators favour.  Others symbols may include “F,” “D,” or “Insufficient.”  I’m sure there are other symbols as well that could represent work that students have not done or not handed in or have done incorrectly or extremely poorly.  The reality of the situation though is that the work has not been appropriately completed.  When it comes right down to it, there are only a few options available for teachers when they are faced with this situation.

The first option is to acknowledge the fact that the work has not been completed appropriately and to ascertain the reason for this.  We need to understand that the students in our class are actual people with all the flaws we ourselves have.  They are busy, they are self-conscious, they are forgetful, they are preoccupied, they are prioritizing their lives.  For all of these reasons, most students would see no value in a zero; all they see is that they have a reason for not doing their work.  Most would even be willing to get it done if given the chance.  For some, that means bringing it in the next day because they left it on their bed.  For others, it might mean needing an extra week because they are going through some rough times at home.  Others may need to be retaught the content before they can complete the work.  The point is, we need to recognize that a zero is a placeholder until the child is capable of completing the work.  We need to provide them the opportunity to reschedule the due date for a date that meets their needs.  In these cases, the zero will be erased and replaced with the mark that represents their ability (Let’s assume a percentage can do this).  The value of a zero is the opportunity to get the work done appropriately.  This is the option I advocate for.   This is the option that allows children to save their dignity in our classrooms. (I won’t get started into the fact that I believe grades as we know them should be eliminated from the education system; for now, I am stuck having to assign a percentage grade to my students.)

The second option involves refusing to use zeros as placeholders, instead choosing to allow them to stand as a final grade.  Unfortunately, I know there are teachers out there who do this.  For these teachers, a deadline is a deadline and if you don’t meet the deadline then you receive an irrevocable zero.  These teachers, I think, view this as an attempt to motivate students to do the work because if they don’t do it, their grade is permanently marred.  These teachers would rather a kid fail or drop their class and “learn a lesson” about deadlines rather than take the time to ascertain the reason for the missing work.  But this is not an indicator of what the student is capable of, especially if their work is sitting, completed at home on their bed.  I am not a supporter of this option; however, I can understand the sentiment behind it.  I believe there are better ways to teach responsibility to students with chronic lapses in self-management.  In these cases, the value of a zero is the measurement of a social value rather than of the curriculum.

The third option, one that I’ve heard from many educators, is to replace the zero with an IC or an incomplete.  I know our Alberta Standardized Tests use an INS for insufficient.  There is a logical fallacy to this option, though.  Let’s say, for instance, that a student doesn’t complete their first assignment for your class.  You assign an IC because you have been forbidden to assign a zero.  Then, for the next assignment, the student scores 100%.  Let’s assume the two assignments are weighted the same and are the only two assignments of the year (I told you I was bad with math, so this makes the calculations simple).  As you complete the final marks for this student, what do you do?  Logically, if the IC isn’t a zero or any other percent, then it can’t be calculated into the final mark.  Therefore, the student receives 100% in your course.  If this is the case, and I am the student, and you have 40 assignments in the year rather than two, why don’t I simply do one assignment well, then not do anymore?  On the other hand, if, like the Alberta Government, you take the IC and turn it into a zero for the purpose of calculating a final mark, then why not just call it a zero all along?  What other options are there?  Either it counts as a zero or it doesn’t count as anything. Right?  Wrong.  One other option I’ve heard is that an IC could represent a failure to complete the course.  This would require a student with an IC to retake the course.  Problem solved?  Not even close.  If I’m that student, I’ll do just enough to force you to give me 1%.  Surely any student can provide enough to earn 1%, whether they’d prefer not to do the work, have other more important things to deal with, or actually don’t understand the concepts.  What if a student didn’t do this though?  Is it really fair to force a student to repeat a grade level if they have one IC?  If we turned that into a zero, they’d still pass.  What about two or three IC’s?  How many do they need to say they didn’t complete the course?  And really, what’s the difference between an IC and a 49%?  Don’t both symbolically represent failing to successfully complete the course?  In this case, the value of a zero is no different than 100% or 49%.

In my current education system, I have to report in percentages for my junior and senior high school classes.  I am quite certain I do not have the ability to force a student to repeat my course because they have an IC.  I am quite certain I would fight any policy that forced me to do so, unless that policy rightly forced any student with a below passing grade on any single assignment to also repeat the course.  Ultimately that would result in a pass/fail system, and that is one that I think I am fully on board with.  But I’ll save that for another post coming soon to this blog near you.

As I wrap up, I’d like to offer a couple last ideas that I’ve been struggling with as a response to this issue.  I don’t like giving zeros.  I know they do not represent what a student can actually do.  The only value they have is to simply inform me that for whatever reason work  was not acceptably done.  They are not an accurate portrayal of what I am suppose to be measuring.  When I first began teaching 6 years ago, the school I still teach in had a high rate of incomplete work from students in all subject areas.  This missing work was assigned a zero by teachers at some point in the year (some earlier than others).  A couple years ago I suggested a homework room, where students who had missing work would spend their lunch “hour” sitting and theoretically working on their overdue work.  I had good intentions with this idea and truly believed in it.  I even volunteered to sit in every day at lunch for two years to supervise The Room.  The program did work, though it had its flaws. Zeros were fewer and farther between.  Students were provided time to work on assignments that they didn’t find time to work on outside of class.  Teachers were more understanding about seeing students as human beings with lives outside of school.  But we also had a headache trying to police those who did not show up to The Room.  We had difficulty deciding on appropriate discipline for those who didn’t show up and needed to be tracked down.  We had fights with students who didn’t know why they were in The Room.  We had teachers who didn’t use the room or forgot to add their students to the list.  I now believe The Room, while it addressed some of our immediate issues, did not address the problem.  Students still weren’t handing in work or doing it properly.  More of them simply eventually got it done.  I think there are a couple things we can do as teachers to address this issue, even in our current education system, and I will even dare to say that we can eliminate zeros altogether.  I want to address these further in another post, but in order to get the discussion started, I’ll toss a couple strategies out here.  As teachers we MUST:

  • Stop assigning homework
  • Learn and care about students’ needs
  • Create a more appealing learning atmosphere

For now, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this issue.  Can we eliminate zeros?  Should we be giving zeros?  Is our current system for awarding grades really the best we can do?  I’m still trying to get things figured out for myself; perhaps together we can figure out what’s best for our students.