No-Zero Policy: Does it Help or Hurt Students?

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High school principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
Teacher sitting at their desk grading papers.

What is a No-Zero Grading Policy?

Traditional grading is based on a scale of 100 and is most often translated into percentages. In recent years, a movement began to think critically about the purpose and equity of grading policies. What do grades represent? Are they representations of effort, content mastery, responsibility, memorization, or proficiency?

View Model A and Model B

The traditional grading system is shown in Model A. What schools around the country are navigating are the muddy waters of the equity in 59% of a 100% scale being considered ‘failing.’ When we anchor ourselves in the true meaning of a grading system and look at Model A through the lens of equity, can we say that Model A is a useful, reliable, and true system for rating student performance and learning? Model B is a visual representation of what a No-Zero Policy defines, a grading policy in which the lowest grade possible is a 50% with equal ratios of percentages per rating group. 

Arguments for No-Zero Policies

Ratio

Forward-thinking schools have questioned how students benefit from a traditional system in which the ratio for failure to passing is 3:2. Furthermore, they are digging into why grades differentiated in increments of 10 for ‘passing’, yet everything earned from a 0% – 59% is considered ‘failure.’ Shouldn’t all levels of achievement reflected through a grading system be incremented equally?

Early Elimination

Within the traditional grading policy in Model A, students frequently eliminate themselves from the ability to pass courses early in the year. This perpetuates academic apathy, truancy issues, and a fixed mindset. For example, if a student earns a 30% in Quarter 1 and a 0% in Quarter 2, even if they earn 100% in Quarters 3 and 4 they will be unable to pass the course because the highest grade possible will average to a 57.5% F.

As a student, especially a student from an environment of trauma and poverty, this reality is ultimately defeating and inevitably contributes directly to student dropout rates. According to DoSomething.org, “Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day.”

As an administrator, I have seen this scenario play out poorly in a few different ways. Most students in this situation would immediately stop participating in class, could begin to disrupt learning for others within the classroom, and possibly start to skip that class in their schedule, leading to disciplinary issues. The consequences for these behaviors would naturally lead to out-of-school suspension days, which leads to more time out of the classroom and missed learning opportunities.

Once a pattern of poor behaviors has begun, it is difficult to re-motivate students to put effort into a class or classes that they have no opportunity to pass. This can spill over to deteriorating motivation to achieve in other classes, and this pattern ultimately leads to lower self-esteem and skewed beliefs of intelligence and potential within a student. A No-Zero Policy does not reward students for lack of effort or achieved learning, but does make classrooms and schools more inclusive and equitable when it comes to earning class credit and passing.

Reflection of Learning or Punishment?

Grades are designed to be reflections of achieved learning and performance mastery within a subject or class. To be a true reflection of learning that has occurred, the grade must be reliable and valid, as with any data, or it becomes futile and irrelevant.

However, as this article from Douglas B. Reeves points out, many times teachers fall into using grades as a punishment for lack of effort, instead of using grades for encouragement. He points out that many teachers see ‘giving’ a student a 50 as an unearned gift when they should be given a zero as punishment. Giving a student a zero for not turning in an assignment is not a true reflection of learning and invalidates the grades earned that are truly reflections of learning. A No-Zero Policy provides a platform for grades to be earned that are valid, reliable, and encouraging instead of rewarding or punishment.

Arguments Against No-Zero Policies

Handing out As & Gifty-Fifties

The building that I lead serves grades 7 thru 12. When I arrived as principal, the district already had a procedure in place to award no grades lower than 50% for the 1st Quarter in an effort to mitigate students eliminating themselves early from the potential to pass classes. Last year, as the pandemic ravaged our routines and daily access to face-to-face learning in school, we implemented the same policy for the end of the 3rd Quarter. Other local districts established the same or similar policies in an effort to accommodate for disrupted learning.

This year, we followed the same policy as usual with the minimum of 50% for 1st Quarter. As we came to the close of the 2nd Quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, I surveyed our staff to get their input. The options included: A- Minimum of 50% again for 2nd Quarter, B- Minimum of 30% for 2nd Quarter, or C- no change, students get what they earned.

Ultimately, the staff chose a compromise between options A and B, but there were still some who did not agree. Those few who believe that we are perpetuating the “Everyone Deserves a Trophy” ideal believe that we are not helping students by ‘giving’ them grades that they ‘did not earn.’ I put these words in quotations because these beliefs are based on the punishment vs. reward theory. In my school, those folks have colloquially termed our No-Zero Policy as “Gifty Fifties.” Depending on which aisle you land on, this term may screech in your mind like nails on a chalkboard.

Enabling

Another argument against No-Zero Policies lies in the belief that this enables students and sets them up for failure after graduation. Students know what they need to earn to succeed and can be motivated or unmotivated depending on their own goals and ways they recognize to achieve them. For example, a student can earn a 50% for Quarter 1, 50% for Quarter 2, 50% for Quarter 3, a 90% for Quarter 4, and pass for the year with a 60%. This student essentially ‘plays the game’ and does nothing all year until April and still earns the same credit as a student who works hard all year. We can admit that this student misses out on a higher GPA and intrinsic reward of hard work, but it is possible. If this scenario seems unacceptable, a No-Zero Policy could be seen as unacceptable due to its potential to enable learned helplessness in students, even if the traditional grading scale is not perfect.

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