Why I Stopped Giving Zeroes as Grades

A year ago, I stopped giving any zeroes in my classes.

Having adopted this policy and used it for a full academic year, I offer for your consideration the top three reasons I am continuing not to assign zeroes.

TLDR version: Zeroes are false reports, zeroes do not measure what I want them to measure, and (after we consider the first and second reason) they outweigh the strength of all other reported grades.

(1) Grades are for reporting skill-building, and zeroes don’t do that. That’s a theme in this post because it’s a major principle for me in my teaching. If a student fails to complete an assignment, it usually has something to do with time or materials management. It’s usually not that the student cannot complete the assignment with any level of success. The zero therefore is a false reporting.

(2) Behavior is distinct from academic performance; grades should only measure skill development. Punitive grades cloud the effectiveness of grades as reports on skill development. If I’m grading you in any way (zeroes, docking points, etc.) for showing up late, acting rudely in class, or failing to complete an assignment, I’m using the grades for something other than what they’re supposed to be for, and it makes them less useful as reporting tools because it’s not clear what they’re reporting when they measure more than one thing at a time. I use grades to report on skill development. If you have a behavior challenge we need to work on together, hitting you over the head with skill-measuring grades is just a category mistake that makes other areas of my job (of reporting and assisting you) more difficult.

(3) Zeroes deliver false messages with more strength than any other considered grade. Think on a continuum in terms of success in completing assignments. If the purpose of my grading is to report success levels in skill development – and that’s how I use grades – then giving a zero adds powerful noise to the signal I’m trying to send. I’ve noted above that the zero itself is a false report. It happens to be a false report that is mathematically more powerful in the averaging procedure than is any other number I could assign when evaluating student progress.

To illustrate this third point (and perhaps the first two, as well): Johnny completes four assignments and skips the fifth. For those that he completed, he earns the following: 80, 85, 90, and 88. That’s an average of 85.75%. Assigning a zero for the fifth means that he now has an average of 68.6%. I’m convinced that assigning Johnnie a D+ instead of a B – or a null-report – in reporting his skill-building progress amounts to a dereliction of duty. What Johnny needs, rather than a zero that makes it seem as though his four-assignment efforts have been for naught – is coaching in completing the fifth assignment. This is just one variation of this potential scenario: perhaps the assignments became more complex as he moved from the first to the second and so on. In this case, I cannot judge that he has earned a B overall – he skipped an important and final measurement – but I need that last bit of data if I am to report accurately. I need that completed assignment. Until then, and in my reporting to parents, I will report that I cannot assign any grade at all to Jonny, as I’m missing an important datum.


Final Note: There is an occasional student (I had one of about seventy students last year) who responds better to zeroes than to anything else. I tend even in these cases to think there’s an alternative to zeroes, but I haven’t found it yet. I mention this only to say that it’s possible that there are exceptions to the rule that zeroes don’t help students to get work done.


I’ll be maintaining this policy again in 2019-2020. Perhaps I’ll report back in a year after a second year of implementation.


Have you tried a no-zero policy in your classes? What has been your experience? Please, share!



Acknowledgement: If this argument looks familiar to you, I was convinced to go to a no-zero policy by arguments offered in Myron Dueck’s book Grade Smarter, Not Harder. The top three reasons I offer here, I’m sure, are in that book. I recommend it! (For what it’s worth, before reading Dueck’s book, I was 100% opposed to the ideas I’m now endorsing wholeheartedly in this post. I love to find good reasons to change an opinion.)

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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