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The Zero Effect


In pondering, somewhat guiltily, why nearly half of his students are failing his class this year, IB a Math Teacher does a quick Excel calculation on his gradebook and finds the answer: If he takes out all the zeros for missed assignments, quizzes, and tests, his students' average grade—wait for it—"goes from a 52% F to a 81% B-." But there's not a whole lot he can do about it at this point:

I can't excuse the missing work because some of them are assessments. I surely can't figure out what they can do on their own without those scores, so zeros and algebra failures they remain.

Incidentally, Math Teacher is clearly not alone in identifying missing work as a major contributor to failing grades: A recent Associated Press story about an Oklahoma middle school's attempt to "eliminate the problem of zeros" has been among the most-viewed stories on edweek.org all this week.


This points up several problems, not the least of which is the ambiguity of grading systems and what they measure. The middle school article presents a supportive system that actually worked with the students to ensure that all papers were completed and turned in. As a former middle school parent I can testify that completion and turning in are two separate and compeletely unrelated acts in the minds of middle schoolers. One of my kids had a similar system of "Tuesday School." Any student who had missing assignments was required to stay after once a week (they may have expanded it to Thursdays as well) until they were caught up. It worked. It turns out that they were already providing "activity busses" for the sports teams, so transportation was a bonus. In the end, they eliminated it. Why? Because the kids liked it. It was intended as punishment. So liking it was not the point. Too bad that everyone forgot that the real aim was to ensure that assignments were completed and turned in--because it worked.

I don't see Math Teacher as adopting this system, either--he appears to be far too contented with showing how defective his students are.

I taught middle school for 26 years and will have to say that it is my favorite age group to teach. They're old enough to do almost anything, and they're young enough to view the teacher as an authority figure - most of them, anyway. I found that when a student is required to face up to the consequences of his own actions, the actions usually changed for the better.

Missing assignment are the bane of all teachers. Doing one's assignments and turning them in are a sign of growing maturity AND a sign that the student understands that a teacher is to be obeyed.

This is old-fashioned and many people are horrified at the use of the word "obey" in school, but the fact remains that those students who do their work are the students who make the high grades and they make those high grades, most of them, because they did their grunt work and it helped them UNDERSTAND the work.

A student who doesn't do the work doesn't earn - or deserve - the same grade that a hardworking student who does what he/she is supposed to do, gets.

Grades are all about "earning." A grade is not a gift. The teacher does not "give" grades. The student earns grades and the teacher keeps score.

The teacher does whatever is in his/her power to help the student, but ultimately? The student - on his/her own - chooses to earns or does not choose to earn. They learn only when they earn.

This is a lesson many kids learn only after the consequences of their own chosen actions - or inactions - fall on their heads. Good teachers and parents do not shield kids from that, but we do our best to make them want to prevent it from ever happening again.

Work not turned in is work not done. The turning in is the completion, not finishing and putting it on the kitchen table or in the backpack and forgetting its existence until OOPS! Wow, where did all those zeros come from? MEAN old teacher! Hey, I did that!

I think the real aim here is to show the student what the natural consequence of not doing the work is. It's a math thing, of course, and it's also a life lesson that many adults have yet to learn, to the world's shame.

One way that I helped my junior high students(during my first 20 years of teaching) understand the impact of missing assignments was to have them compute their own grades every four weeks or so.

When faced with the impossibility of dividing 10 by 20, for some, they began to understand the effect that each missed assignment had on their overall grade.

To drive home the point even deeper, each student had to bring his computations to my desk and tell me what he had earned.

This technique worked well not only in reducing the number of missed assignments, but in placing the responsibility for the grade on the right shoulders.

It worked so well, in fact, that I continued to have even my college students(during my recent 20 years of teaching) compute their own grades up until my retirement last year. Not only did this cut down on the number of missed assignments, but on the number of students who insisted on failing my classes.

I had students bring in boxes for a participation grade. When I told one student that just by getting a 100 for his box that day, it bumped his grade up 4 points(because of his many zeroes for no homework), he said, "Man, I'm going to start doing my homework!".
Go figure what a little reality will do to boost a grade point average.

We had a meeting awhile back about not giving out zeros, but trying to figure out what would take the spot of zeros even if the student did not complete their assignments. Well my problem is that students are becoming smarter everyday and when they know that we as teachers can no longer hand out zeros for assignment they refuse to do than, what assignment are we going to ever get from them. I have students now that sit in my class and come like they are coming to watch a movie; they do not bring paper, pencil or a book and I guess I am there to entertain them for 70 minutes. So the question is what can we do to get the work out of students and if they refuse to do it then what actions should be put in place, because it is not fair to students that do their work everyday to have to work so hard for the grade they want and this other student that does not even care to bring their material to class to be offered a grade at all. I think the grading should reflect what the student puts into class if they but zero effort into work I should be able to put a zero in my grade book.

I don't think it's fair to the students or parents to give them false hopes. If the student does no work in school yet flies by with good grades because of the no zero rule, then why would they not think that this is exactly how life will treat them. If they succeed in school then they'll succeed in life, right? However, if the student receives grades that he earns, in this case a zero, then it waves a red flag so that this behavior can be addressed if desired. Without the red flags, then there seems to be no issues which establishes a false sense of security. Life will not be so kind. The student should start learning in school that life does not run smoothly if no effort is expended.

What do you think about PLC's, Formative or Summative Assessments? Shouldn't we truly be assessing what students know? A is still a F, no matter how low it is! Why not give our students a chance at being successful? Failing is failing... passing is passing. How fair is this? a 90-100 is an A, an 80-89 is a B, 79-70 is a C, 69-60 is a D, 59 and below...

If IB a Math Teacher really understands math, it confounds me that he or she can put zeros in place of missing assessments and then run a mean average on the whole collection of numbers.

First, a number that represents the value of a missing assessment, i.e., zero, has no business in a collection of numbers that represents actual assessment evaluations. The zeros and the grades are "unlike terms" (you learn about this in pre-algebra, so I’d expect that IB a Math Teacher and other zero aficionados would know this) and cannot be added together! (The zeros represent work not done, and the grades represent evaluations of student output.) If you can't add them up legitimately, how can you divide the false sum by the total number of assignments both completed and uncompleted and expect to come up with a number that represents what the student knows about the course goals? Am I the only one that can see we're talking apples and oranges here? Perhaps it's a new math I'm unaware of...

Second, introducing zeros to a collection of assessment evaluation numbers (grades) violates the concept of the mean as a measure of central tendency. By introducing “outliers,” even if they were “like terms,” the mean is corrupted and does not represent a measure of central tendency.

For more details, refer to a post I made sometime ago on statistical integrity.


Rationalizing about the “real world,” “teaching responsibility,” and overt attempts at student manipulation won't make the facts go away. Zeros are invalid, illogical, and frankly, anyone defending their use looks a bit thoughtless. (I actually have another word in mind for “thoughtless.”)

Shift the emphasis from attempted (but largely failed) control of student output to evaluation of student achievement relative to district course goals and you'll see the picture.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Hugh O'Donnell: If IB a Math Teacher really understands math, it confounds read more
  • Ashley: What do you think about PLC's, Formative or Summative Assessments? read more
  • stephknee teach: I don't think it's fair to the students or parents read more
  • Torressa: We had a meeting awhile back about not giving out read more
  • stephknee teach: I had students bring in boxes for a participation grade. read more




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