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Weekly Wonder: I wonder if our grading system is fair.

Is Our Grading System Fair?

“A zero has an undeserved and devastating influence, so much so that no matter what the student does, the grade distorts the final grade as a true indicator of mastery. Mathematically and ethically this is unacceptable . ”

Rick Wormeli quoted in O’Connor, K., A Repair Kit for Grading, ETS/ATI, Portland, 2007, 92


The topic this week opens a huge can of worms in education.  For better or worse, in the end it seems that everything comes down to the final grade, which generally generates a source of anxiety for kids and a source of contention among stakeholders when disagreement or confusion presents itself in regards to how the grade was determined, and perhaps most importantly, what the grade really means and if it truly indicates learning. In short, one little letter has the power to make a huge impact on a kid’s life.  Of course, this is nothing new.  It has always been the case, and little has changed. Grades have been and remain the center point in education, which are often accepted as the final word on learning, the final indicator of success or failure.  But what if the final word is flawed?  What if grades are not really true indicators of learning, success, or failure?  I wonder.  And though my wonders may lure me to wander into a huge realm full of questions never asked and answers oft ignored, I will stick to one worm in the can for now: zeroes.  We will explore the general topic of grading practices in greater depth next month.  

The great majority of kids who fail do so because of the dreaded zero, which is most generally the result of a missing assignment, not necessarily an indicator of low-or-no proficiency with course content.  So, invariably, zeroes kill grades, often creating holes that kids cannot crawl out of, resulting in many giving up and failing a course. So, too, even kids who do not fail courses suffer the unfair penalty of zeroes, which often drastically decrease their grades.  So what?  If they didn’t want the penalty, they should have completed the assignment.  One should not get something for nothing.  Kids need to learn.  Yes, they do, but some lessons make more sense than others.  And zeroes don’t really make sense when we examine traditional grading scales.

Most grading scales roughly reflect a 10-point-increment scale, moving down the scale from “A” (100 – 90) to “B” (89 – 80) and so on.  Again, this is nothing new.  We all were subject to such a scale, and kids still are today.  And, as we continue down the scale, it remains uniform until we get to “F” and then it abruptly dives from 59 to 0.  “F’s” should stop at 50.  There are no “G” through “K” grades, only “F’s”.   In terms of numbers, scores given in this range may reflect a degree of completion (a kid did 3 of 10 problems, so he gets 30%), but in terms of learning, scores given in this range whether it’s 59, 34, or 17 reflect one thing: failure.  When kids or parents see scores below 60, they generally understand that that indicates a performance well-below standard; students have not been successful with the content. When we start assigning numbers within this range, what are we really seeking to communicate?  Let’s take a 52%.  Are we really meaning to suggest that this is a lesser fail than a 33%, which should then suggest a greater fail? This then continues down the scale, approaching the zero, a sign of complete and utter failure.  Kids in this range for various reasons are well-below the grade-level standards that we have established in our classrooms.  That’s the message, generally intended and generally received.  This is clear.

What I wonder is if we also have to attach a punishment in the form of a sub-50-point score?  Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair.  Why can’t we let an “F” be an “F?”  We let “A’s be A’s” and “B’s” be “Be’s.”  Why not “F’s?”  Why do we have to let the bottom drop out?  A bottom that drops the kids off a cliff they can rarely re-climb, especially in classrooms where they cannot turn in late work or redo assignments.  Is this really fair for kids?  Is this ethical in an arena where the stakes are so high? I’m not sure.

Four years ago, I quit zeroes.  They are no longer allowed in my classroom.  I still have “F’s” which communicate, in number and learning, performances well-below standard.  Kids still receive failing scores in my classroom, but I don’t tack on punishment, additional insult to injury in the form of sub-50% scores; 50% is now the lowest score possible in my class.  The kids know from the mark that they have failed to meet standard; I don’t need to crush them more with added penalties.  It makes sense to me, it makes sense to my kids, and it makes sense to parents.  It’s also beginning to make sense to some of my colleagues, who, too, have adopted a no-zero policy.  But not all. Some of my colleagues have accused me of malpractice, suggesting I am ruining kids’ lives by not teaching them a lesson.  And I guess of that I am guilty.  But I sleep at night knowing that I have given kids a fair shake, and while I may not be teaching them the harsh lessons of life, I am giving them opportunity by creating a realm of possibility in room 219.

Your turn.  Is the practice of giving zeroes fair?  Please, join the conversation.  Your words matter.



  1. There are some things that I have a 40% lowest limit on when it comes to my English class; however, I give 0 when 0 is turned in. A 0 usually gets a student’s attention, and some parents’ as well, and the result is that the student gets it done and turns it in late. I cannot give credit for something I can’t assess.

  2. As a high school English teacher, I have never given below a 50% on an assignment. I will, however, not “give” a student any grade when he/she turns nothing in. I give multiple opportunities for students to do or redo any and all assignments until the very last day of the grading period but find it unethical to “give” a 50% to a student who performed “0%”. My students learn Day 1 that showing up is the first step to learning and succeeding in my class.

  3. I also give my students a 50% on anything that is not turned in. I firmly believe that a zero is unfair and does not accurately reflect what the student knows. A zero, to me, means that a student knows nothing, and that’s not what I want their grade to reflect. A 50% simply means that a student is below standard. Why further the punishment with a zero? While a student receives the 50%, that score is not set in stone. It is also part of my grading policies to allow students to do any assignment, at any time, until the end of the semester. Do I have more students completing missing assignments? Yes, maybe not a ton, but I think it’s safe to say that I do have more because of my “no zero” policy and also because that 50% can go away anytime they choose to do the missing work. I don’t want my students to feel like they’re in a hole so big that there’s no way out. I want my students to feel like there is hope, a chance, to raise their grade to passing.

  4. I agree that zeros have an too much of an influence on the grade and that it can create a hole that students cannot find their way out.

    My concern is if students do not turn work in then I do not have evidence of their mastery (or lack there of). I know that we should not compare one students experience to another and that one students grade is different from another, but a 50% to a student who tried but struggles and a 50% to a student who couldn’t be bothered to turn anything in seems disingenuous to the student who tried.

    I think the mindset change needs to be in encouraging kids (and adults) to take chances and make mistakes because that is how you demonstrate growth.

    Keep it up Monte the dialogue is great!

  5. I’m a firm believer in giving 50% as the lowest score. A student’s grade should be as accurate a reflection of skill mastery as possible. Granted, my hands are tied if a student fails to provide evidence of mastery by rushing through or failing to submit work. I like to think of every assignment as a process of continuing evidence and feedback, right until final grades are submitted. This is turning out to be more of a mindset shift for my students than I expected. They are so used to turning an assignment in, looking at their grade, and forgetting it.

  6. Thank you for this; I needed a reminder of this last semester. I have a student who literally checks out every time he comes into my class. From the looks of his grades, and the teacher conference we had on him last semester, he is the same way with other classes. This Samoa boy is a tough cookie. It’s his second time taking sophomore English too..

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