Why I don’t do zeros.

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[haiku url=”http://www.tracyrosen.com/leadingfromtheheart.org/wp-content/uploads/podcasts/assessmentAug9.mp3″ title=”Why I don’t do zeros”]


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Image: from Not So Good by zephyrbunny, found on flickr and made available through a creative commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license

It’s Saturday morning, a little over 2 weeks until the school year starts again for teachers at the New Frontiers School Board, where I work. My mind lately, as it usually does around this time of the summer, has been shifting from summer to practice, and this morning it opened up to assessment. Here’s the flow chart of how it hit this groove:

Saturday Morning FlowChartMind Map made with Bubbl.us

And here is that comment I made over on Hugh O’Donnell’s post (which you better go over and read if you want any context):

That’s right, not radical at all. We do NOT need to give zeros and, I’m sorry, but the excuse that we’ve got so many initiatives thrown at us warrants the practice? (the practice = completely demoralizing children and doing nothing to help improve their learning) Come on. A zero as feedback gives me no hope.

I really began to learn the art of assessment about 5 years ago, when I met Ken O’Connor at a conference in Ottawa. And then I started to read everything I could about it, which I’m still in the middle of doing ;)

So I guess I’m one of those teachers who read. And you know what I do when I am reading? I do it publicly – I carry the book around with me, I talk to others about what I am reading and about how, if at all, it is helping to change my practice.

So it DOESN’T need to be top down. If we sit around waiting for someone else to do something, well…wouldn’t it be lovely for there to be the perfect piece of grading policy to fall from above that all teachers would embrace and follow. (where’s the smiley guy for sarcasm?) Un-unh. I’m not waiting for policy to inform my practice. I prefer to focus on my practice and allow it to inform policy.

I googled Ken O’Connor and found this. An administrator’s notes from one of his sessions from last year. I particularly like the list at the end – repair kit for grading.

he he – first comment of the weekend. Guess the coffee is kicking in ;)

(and that’s the edited version…)

Assessment informs learning. I assess before, during, and after units of study so that my students and I know where they stand with the learning that is going on. If a student is NOT meeting the expectations for ANY reason – be it ability, interest, learning style, or socio/emotional issue – it us up to me to address it and assessment is data that shows me if how I am addressing it works. Evaluation is when I look critically at all of the data that I’ve culled from assessment, and reporting is how I share that with parents.

So…I don’t do zeros because of my professional ethics, which are closely tied to my core values:

  • always hold on to hope for the future –> a zero in no way informs a learner of anything to do with potential for learning and change and can completely destroy any possible hope that was there.
  • always teach with integrity –> giving a zero undermines my integrity as a teacher.
  • always maintain the utmost respect for my students and their families –> a zero indicates to me that no communication has been made between me and my students/families about progress and how to fix things.

Very often a zero is tied to behaviour. It is a punishment for skipping class, not studying, acting jerky or disrespectful, whatever. When these things happen to me (and they do) I focus on why this is happening instead of trying to punish it. It makes more sense for me.


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  • My best advice for teachers (and parents and peers) when a student appears to have checked out and disengaged from school is to look at where they ARE engaged. If the students is disinterested in my math class but completely engaged in basketball, music, video games, or social relationships, then my challenge as a teacher is to think about what those activities are offering. For example, a principal recently raised a very similar issue with me, noticing that a group of students were failing English and math, but totally engaged in classes in dance and drumming. The superficial response might be that dance and drumming were just inherently more fun, but I suggesed that he look more closely at differences in teaching strategy. During every dance class, for example, every student received individual feedback several times per class, and the feedback was directly related to making immediate improvements in student performance. In the math and English classes, by contrast, a few students engaged, while others go could days, even weeks, at a time without individual feedback. When students did receive feedback, it was not provided with the intention of improving performance, but simply a judgment – the response was right or wrong. Students (and adults) persist in activities where they can sense progress and improved performance. That’s why video games are so seductive – kids die at the end, but they aspire to “get to the next level.” I think we need to have classes, assessments, and feedback systems that mirror that sort of engagement – the way that video games, music teachers, and great coaches get that sort of engagement. I’ve seen this done in writing and math classes, so I’m not willing to give up on the idea that we can make every class as engaging as our colleagues do in technology and the arts. At the very least, we can remove the toxic influences that actively discourage kids. Ask yourself: How many kids would play a video game if they didn’t get feedback on their performance immediately? How many kids would play a video game if the result of “losing” was that they couldn’t play the game again? I do understand that some kids are disengaged from life – and perhaps they ought to be evaluated for emotional disturbances. But the fact that improved feedback and grading systems do not work for 100% of students can’t stop us from making improvements now. MissTeacha, and all of us, can’t make our standard of success a level of perfection that is unattainable. The best we can do is to say that our professional practice is improving that and that we are using the best available evidence to make the best decisions we can. I’ve been thinking recently about how I could have made this year better for my students, and am already planning for the fall of 2009. Our profession has to become a safer place to acknowledge error, reflect on our successes and mistakes, and strive for continuous improvement, whether we’re in our first year, or 35th year, of teaching.

  • Thanks for including me in this discussion. There are a number of very thoughtful and constructive posts on this topic, so rather than repeat what has been said already about the need to dispense with the zeroes, I’d like to add some comments about how to have more constructive discussions on this topic with parents, colleagues, administrators, board members, and especially members of the media, who remain firmly committed to the zero.

    First, let’s change the focus of conversation from the mechanics of grading – zeroes and averages – to where we can find common ground — appropriate consequences for missing work and inadequate work. “You want to teach kids responsibility? So do I. You want tough consequences when they don’t turn in work? Me, too. So now, the only question is, which consequences are most effective? We’ve got evidence from Thomas Guskey that goes back to 1911 that grading as punishment does not work. Indeed, when kids say, “gimme the zero” they are PROVING that the zero is not a consequence that they fear – it’s a gift meaning that they don’t have to do any more work. Moreover, if zeroes were an effective consequence, then today’s students would have record-high compliance with homework assignments, and I’ve not heard anyone making that claim. The appropriate consequence – the TOUGHEST consequence for those who want to “teach kids responsibility” – is not a zero or an F, but the requirement to DO THE WORK. We can’t let our critics paint us as weaklings who allow students to get away with murder. In fact, those of us who refuse to give zeroes are like the tough athletic coach who, rather than throw a kid off the team for missing a free throw, will instead require extra practice to improve the skills of the students.

    Second, let’s shift the debate from belief to evidence. There is no perfect grading system, but there certainly is the proponderance of evidence of what does and does not work. My articles on this subject (see, for example, “Effective Grading Practices” in Educational Leadership) show that when grading practices improve, failures decrease, behavior improves, attendance goes up, and teacher morale soars. When I hear people say, “I believe that zeroes are effective” it’s in the same category of those who wish to inject their religious faith into the argument. While I deeply respect their faith, I don’t find religious belief systems a substitude for evidence in public policy debates. Thanks to people like Tom Guskey, Jane Bailey, Bob Marzano, Ken O’Connor and many others, I think we have evidence. At the local level, I simply ask the defenders of the zero the “Dr. Phil” question — “How’s that workin’ out for you?” It simply does not make sense to complain that student performance is low, homework is late or missing, and by the way, I’d like to continue to use the same grading strategies that have been associated with those results.

    Third, let’s consider the consequences of the discussion more seriously. Zeroes lead to failures; failures lead to dropouts; dropouts lead to lifetime catastrophic consequences for students, families, and communities. This is not just a polite academic dispute. It’s in the same category of the debates a generation ago that included sincere statements by teachers, administrators, and parents who wanted to “teach responsibility” by using corporal punishment on students. Evenentually, the evidence that showed that corporal punishment is ineffective and counterproductive carried the day, and if you saw someone raise a hand to strike a child today, you would not say, “Well, it’s just a personal matter of academic freedom.” You would stop it. Toxic grading practices are the academic corporal punishment of the 21st Century, and it’s time to let the evidence speak.

    To keep peace in your community, be sure to talk about what does NOT change — “We’ll still have an honor roll, still have Individualized Education Plans, still have academic letters, stil have transcripts” — all the things that people fear will be destroyed if you change grading policies from the halcyon days of their youth. By putting these changes in the context of common goals to improve student responsibility and work, you will have a little less strife in the debates to come.

    Doug Reeves
    The Leadership and Learning Center

    • Tracy says:

      Thanks for joining this conversation, Doug, I knew that you’d add something valuable to it. I like how you steer ideas away from the notion of grades. I work in an alternative program for students in Grades 10 and 11. We have a policy that if the work for a certain day isn’t done (both homework and classwork) then the student stays after school until it is done. It requires more time and work for teachers. That’s the reality. More often than not I am at school anywhere from 2-4 hours after the final bell rings. This is because our school system is structured around that traditional evaluation system – teachers provide content during the day, assign homework, grade it, then add it all up and report out at the end of the term.

      In order for change to occur around how we set goals with/for students and how we evaluate them there needs to be structural and cultural work done within school settings. Structural work around how the teaching day is organized (ie – scheduling in time to work with kids after formal teaching occurs) and cultural work around changing views to do with how schools regard evaluation (ie – looking at the need for formal final examinations worth 50% of a mark that perpetuate the notion of final product rather than process).

      What I’m getting at here is at the core of MissTeacha’s original question (I think). What can a teacher do with those kids who don’t care when it comes to failure? They don’t care because the educational system has failed them in the past. Many teachers still work within that same system of failure. What are some concrete things MissTeacha can do tomorrow within the context she described?

  • Miss Teacha says:

    You may have posted answers to these things already, but this is the only post of yours that I’ve read.

    I admit Zeros are a punishment. It’s statistically inaccurate. I can see this! And I’m on the boat, but unless I find other solutions, I’m going to jump ship.

    *One of the first things I did to acknowledge this ZERO issue was to turn all of the missing assignments into 59%. This still leaves a great majority in my standard classes failing. Why? Because they won’t do the work. Because they won’t do the work they don’t get the skills/content knowledge. Because they won’t do the work they fail. I teach in a highly urban area: the kids move around a lot, they don’t come to school for frivoulous reasons, when they come they go to sleep or simply stare into space, some of them are “high”. . . this is the reality of my day. I put them in groups to get some of the work done. We work through it as whole group. I diversify my instruction. However, my classes are crowded and I can not give individualized attention to each and every student. How do I combat this? How do I assess their learning if I can’t get them to do anything? I beg them to stay after school so I can help individually. Apparently, I’m asking to much. Those who do the work learn. Those who participate learn. But what about the rest? Grades on a report card are supposed to reflect a student’s learning.

    And the thing that baffles me is that some of them do NOT care that they are failing. They will say it. There is a student in one of my classes who will fail, WH for the 3rd year in a row. He will be a 3 time freshman b/c he’s not just failing my class.

    I’m a good teacher, but how do I combat these issues.

    Miss Teachas last blog post at [site]..Google Talk & random tidbits

  • Miss Profe says:

    I no longer do zeros. Glad to know there are kindred spirits in the blogosphere.

    Miss Profes last blog post at [site]..Just In Time

  • Tracy says:

    Hugh, thank you. I am honoured, really!

    It is something I care very much about. In my latest post, I wrote about a boy in my Grade 10 math class who announced that he could not do math.

    I’m discovering that he has a logical-mathematical mind, an innate common sense for solving math problems. Somehow he never learned the right formulas, the correct processes for solving for x and has failed math miserably for the past 4 years.

    It breaks my heart that this boy has been convinced, through evaluation methods that did not work for him, that he can not do math.

    There you go. A real-life example for why I don’t do zeros.

  • Tracy, your blog is a work of art. You’re doing the stuff I dream about, especially with this podcast! The quality is wonderful!

    And you are so right with the idea that “zero” does not inform your assessment.

    I’m sending this page to my superintendent and ass’t supe in charge of curriculum, instruction, and school operations. :)

  • Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Tracy!

    I admire any teacher who can teach the way you describe in the classroom. As a secondary teacher with perhaps five or six classes per day I found it inordinately difficult to do this with more than one class in my group per day. I had a Mathematics fifth form class I tought across the subject – it worked, but it took all my spare time and I found I eventually neglected some aspects of mu other teaching – not good I’m afraid.

    There are a number of factors that can determine the success of such programmes. The teacher, and the amount of energy the teacher is able to put into it is one. Another is the level and spread of abilities in the class groups. Yet another is the diversity of subjects that the teacher is expected to teach. Finally there is the amount of free time the teacher is given to prepare and also to recuperate.

    I taught Maths, Science and a senior Science subject and this was diverse for me, giving me little time in a secondary school to do much else than cater for my students. This was fine when I was a teacher. As I got promoted, eventually to head of department, I found my teaching load did not change, making the rest of my job well near impossible.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  • Tracy says:

    Hi Ken,
    My experience with distance education had its pros and cons. I loved being able to set my own learning routine – Sunday morning with coffee and croissants worked best for me – but after a year or so, I began to crave the personal contact with my professors and peers so I switched programs in order to attend a local school.

    I think it is possible to create learning situations in classrooms that meet the needs of every learner (if done well, lessons could even be followed at a distance if needed). That is my ideal because it also satisfies my need to see and talk with others while I teach and learn. It is a lot of work on the teacher’s part – but so much more satisfying than one lesson for all!

    My inspiration for this began about 6 years or so ago when Kathie Nunley came to our school to talk about brain-based learning and layered curriculum. More recently I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and spend the day with Carol Ann Tomlinson and a group of educators I was working with. Her work on differentiated instruction and aligning it with curricular goals (with Jay McTighe) is very much aligned with what we are talking about here.

    I am very glad to have met you through this blog, Ken. I think we have Scott to thank for that.
    ps – and thanks for that link to The Bamboo Project Blog. It looks like a place I will like visiting.

  • Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Tracy!

    My students all have their own objectives. They vary a bit and there are some objectives that I also select for them – they rarely challenge my choices :-)

    Learning in a distance environment has one big advantage, and that is of pace. There is no reason to have distance learners in step other than to meet the needs of the teacher or provider. A sychronous learning environment rarely meets the needs of every learner.

    I’m not shooting in flames the idea of sychronosity. It has its merits and its place. But every lesson, every day? Nah! I wouldn’t want to have it that way (that’s how I was taught by the way – most of us were).

    If I could have my chance of an education again it would be asynchronous learning for me. How do I know it works for me? Simple. Been there, done that with synchronosity.

    I learnt more as a post-graduate researcher (asynchronous learning) and as a teacher/researcher (asynchronous learning) than I’ve ever done in a synchronous environment. The recent 31 Day Challenge that I took part in was wonderfully asychronous. True we had a pacer in Michele Martin, but it was still synchronous. I chose to do the tasks the way I wanted to and in my own time. In that environment I believe I learnt at my best.

    Nuff said?

    Ka kite an?
    from Middle-earth

    Ken Allans last blog post at http://newmiddle-earth.blogspot.com..Crystal Ball Gazing

  • Tracy says:

    @ Ken – yes, that is why I assess often. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what is going on with my kids at all times. Positive feedback is important – and so is realistic and timely feedback. With your system, is each student working towards different objectives?

    @ Janet – thanks so much for coming by! I’m a huge fan of mind maps as well. When I make them it helps me to understand whatever it is I am working on much more clearly. I do find that making my own maps has much more relevance for me that using maps others have made, though. Don’t you?

    @ Rodney – thanks to you for coming by as well! I did not at all mean to imply that scoring was my primary motivation system, if I did than I must not have been as clear as I wanted to be. I expect my students to enjoy learning in my class. In order for me to hold that expectation I need to ensure that my students have opportunities to achieve success. In order for me to do that, I need to constantly assess their learning so that I know where they are in order to know how to get them where they need to be.
    Regardless, marks are how we communicate progress with the rest of the school community. There are still many teachers (I know of a number) who hand out zeros. So, actually, I do agree with your statement that it is like taking a stand against using whips against slaves. It is one way of whipping a student. In fact, it is the best way to destroy a student’s self-esteem. And I won’t have any of it.

  • Rodney says:

    Taking a stand against zeros seems like taking a stand against using whips against slaves. Why continue to use a scoring feedback system as your primary student motivation system at all? It discourages curiosity, promotes fear, and takes much of the joy out of achieving understanding. Want to see what motivates students to learn? Look to video game theory. Not the graphics or the stories, but the patterns of reward and achievement that they use to encourage continued play.

  • janet says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog. I’m a bit of a Mind Map fan. There are heaps on http://www.fuzz2buzz.com/en/mindexchange/browse-grid – have you seen them?

  • Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Tracy!

    I affirm your opinion on this one, if for no other reason than I never got a zero at school.

    I got 11% for Latin and 17% for French and took great delight in telling my kids about them (my daughter Hannah was a top scholar in Latin before she had to move on to expand her Art grouping – she thought it was a hoot).

    One of the reasons why an exact mapping of learner achievement is not known, often not recognised or admitted, is that the particular assessment method applied fails the learner by simply not recording what was achieved along the learning pathways. Extreme examples of this are a test that returns a zero mark or an assessment criterion that reports a not achieved. This can be read as indicating that the learner has learnt nothing – a very unlikely scenario.

    I frequently review any assessment that I return to my kids. Most that I assess have different tasks that are graded according to specific criteria. But they also all have mark out of 20 which most kids can better identify with as their achievement overall.

    If I think that the learner has done exceptionally well but the knowledge criterion, or some other, pulls the overall mark down, I will apportion extra marks accordingly. When a learner returns the lowest grade in all or most parts (which may well equate with a zero mark overall) I choose one aspect of the assignment that they’ve done best in and then mark that out of 20. A learner rarely gets a mark below 12 using this system.

    Kids thrive on positive feedback, however poorly they are doing in their assessments and their subsequent achievements usually indicate this too.

    One thing I must explain. I’m a distance educator. There is no possibility that learners in my learning group will compare assessments to see who got what.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

    Ken Allans last blog post at http://newmiddle-earth.blogspot.com..Crystal Ball Gazing

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