We All Need Grace: The Case Against Zero’s

If you ever want a lively educational debate, ask a teacher or administrator about his or her grading system for missing or late work.  What is your policy? Based on survey data, teachers and principals frequently believe it is ethical and appropriate to give zeros for missing or late work (Green, Johnson, Kim, & Pope, 2007; Johnson, Green, Kim, & Pope, 2008). Often we believe by applying such a penalty, we are teaching students to be responsible citizens.

I understand; there are times that deadlines REALLY matter. In my world, applying for a conference presentation, applying for grant funding, and getting test scores back to teachers on time are all examples of non-negotiable deadlines! But what if applying a penalty in the classroom creates more problems than it solves?

The Penalty Problem for the Teacher

Johnson, Green, Kim, and Pope (2008) argued that educators who modify grades based on late or missing work do not accurately measure or communicate the student’s level of mastery of learning targets. In such a situation we conflate a behavior (or executive function deficit) with achievement. Giving the student a zero for late or missing work makes it impossible for the teacher to determine what the student independently knows because there is no evidence of student performance on a learning target. When a zero is averaged into the class mean or the student’s mean to make instructional adaption decisions, the data we use for decision making is flawed. Flawed data hinders robust instructional decision making. Flawed data does not tell us how well the student is learning the state standards.

While we should not center our focus solely on our own teacher effectiveness measure, we might consider that student achievement measures are a component of Student Learning Objective (SLO) systems. SLOs are centered in teachers providing opportunities for student growth in achievement. Allowing students to miss an assignment and take a zero consequently means we are allowing a student to miss mastering foundational precursor content and skills that need to be leveraged in upcoming units. If this is not true, then why require the work? Allowing students to miss an assignment does not help students grow.

The Penalty Problem for the Student

In talking with a group of fifth-grade teachers recently, I asked them why they had moved away from giving students zeros for missing assignments.  Here is what they said,

“We want students to learn.”

“Some kids care about their grades and others don’t. They need to do the assignments.”

Research evidence supports both these teachers’ observations and their practice. High performing students tend to focus on grades because they don’t want to fail. Often their grade confirms their own self-image of “smart.” However, grades can have the opposite effect for students who struggle.

The use of penalty grading (which includes zeros for late or missing work) may contribute to students falling behind. Assessment is a learning opportunity as well as a measure of learning. Assessment helps students move information into their long-term memory for transfer. Students in earlier stages of learning, who are already frustrated and struggling, have almost no way to recover from a zero. It makes it easier to give up. These students (and all students) need models of perseverance. When we set high expectations and insist that students must submit their assignments and learn we show all students are valued. So, what should we do with missing or late work? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Have a documented policy on the treatment of missing and late work to support clarity of expectations.
  2. Separate the behavior from the assessment of learning. Place a zero in the gradebook for the missing work, initially. Accept and grade the assignment until the non-negotiable deadline (e.g., grades are due) has been reached. Find a behavior modification tool that works for you and the student. For example, if your school uses lunch detention, consider giving lunch detention for missing your deadline. If the student has a parent who will withhold the “all powerful video game console,” send an email.
  3.  Develop a checklist of all assignments to be graded at the beginning of the nine weeks. Make sure students have it in their binder. Hold a learning conference with students as needed to review what is missing and to support the student in getting it turned in.
  4.  Allow students to resubmit assignments during a make-up window. Ask that each resubmission also include a reflection on what mistakes were made originally and how those mistakes have been corrected. If you feel students are abusing the make up policy, you can always constrain this to students who do not have a B or higher (because B’s or higher are essential to moving on).

It is Not Always Just Kids

No one is more focused on grades than teachers and administrators in their own graduate school courses, especially in a classroom assessment class! And guess what? Teachers and administrators turn in assignments late too. At the end of the day, we all need grace. You, me, and our students.


Green, S., Johnson, R., Kim, D, & Pope, N. (2007).  Ethics in classroom assessment practices: Issues and attitudes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23(7), 999-1011.

Johnson, R., Green, S., Kim, D., & Pope, N. (2008).  Educational leaders’ perceptions about ethical assessment practices.  The American Journal of Evaluation, 29(4), 520-530.






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