Zeros doom students; turn to a no-zero policy

By Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief

You are off to a strong start in your new English class. Four 100s in a row, and you really understand the material. Then, you have an off day—you’ve been up late for the past week doing homework, you’ve been busy putting in extra hours at the job you hold down on top of school, or you’ve been at the school till 8 every night participating in the school play—and you miss an assignment. Now your perfect 100 is an 80, just because of one zero. Had you gotten an 81 on each of the five assignments, you would have a better grade than you do now. This is the crux of why giving 0s as failing grades is unfair, and we should implement a no-zero policy.

I know what you’re thinking. A no-zero policy isn’t fair either. Handing out the same grade for missing an assignment as for doing half the work? Students won’t have any reason to do their work. But if you get a 50 on assignments, you are still going to fail the class. No student wants to fail their classes; by setting the lowest grade at 50 instead of 0, you give them an incentive to keep trying in a class even after failing, or missing a few assignments. It is nearly impossible to climb out of a hole made by a few big zeros, but if those grades were 50s instead, with hard work, kids could raise their grades. It would take extra effort from them, and they would have to improve—but isn’t that what we want?

And ask yourself this. One student’s grades look like this: 100, 100, 100, 100, 0. The other student’s grades look like this: 81, 81, 81, 81, 81. Who mastered the material better? The answer is clearly the first student, but the second student has a higher average. If that 0 was a 50, suddenly the first student has an A again.

A no-zero policy also mitigates some of the disadvantages that being poor gives students. If your family has less money, you are more likely to be called on to take on a job in addition to school, and if your hours after school are spent at work, you have less time to devote to homework. Fewer homework assignments get completed, and your grade tanks. Meanwhile, you could be acing tests and in-class assignments.

A pattern of high test scores and classwork grades paired with incomplete or missing homework assignments does not indicate a bad student, or someone who isn’t trying hard enough; it indicates a personal situation not conducive to learning. Whether the situation be economic struggles, unstable housing, or an unsupportive family, it is not the child’s fault. Many people are simply not in the position to reach their potential while they are in high school.

Generally speaking, the notion that high school is not the most important part of your life is good, and true. But the grades you get in high school do affect the rest of your life. They can determine what college you get into, or if you get into college. For students at an economic disadvantage when it comes to college, their grades matter even more. The difference between straight As and straight Bs could be the difference between a scholarship covering the tuition of the school they really want to go to, and attending community college or falling to staggering student debt.

Making students “learn the hard way” by giving them a 0 for missing an assignment, or bombing a test, doesn’t encourage them to work harder. It communicates to them that they have 0 chance of success, and it screws their future. Even if someone is missing assignments just because they don’t feel like putting the effort in to do them, is it really fair to bomb their futures for that choice? It is a well known fact that teenagers don’t make the most responsible choices.

In part, this is due to biology. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that guides us to make logical decisions and think about the future and consequences of our actions, isn’t fully developed yet. It doesn’t actually finish developing until you are 25, but studies have shown that in teenage years, we don’t even make decisions with our prefrontal cortex. When teenagers make decisions, their amygdalas light up with activity more than their prefrontal cortex, while the opposite is true of adults. We make decisions primarily with our amygdala, which is the emotional, irrational part of our brain. Teenagers are still children, really, and still need guidance to make the right choices. A no-zero policy does this by giving them a bit of grace while they figure out who they are and how to regulate their work.

There is also the issue of the illogical ratio that we have for failing and passing grades: you can get anywhere from a 0 to a 59 under “F” for fail, but only ten percentage points represent every passing letter grade. How does this make sense?

What is the point of grades? Are they punishments and rewards? I hope not. Grades are meant to reflect your understanding of material. In theory, a 0% grade should tell a student that they don’t know what is being taught in a class, and encourage them to reach out for help or try harder. But in reality, as I have discussed, the reason for someone getting a 0 on a worksheet is rarely that they don’t know how to solve any problem on the page. The truth is that slapping someone with a 0 is a punishment, not a signal to them to try harder.

About once a quarter, I find myself looking at the assignments left to go, and my current grade, and calculating the percent grade I need to get for each assignment to get the overall grade I want. Sometimes, I look at my grade and realize that whatever I do, I won’t get my grade up to the next tier. This pulls some of my motivation. If I know that however hard I try, I can’t get my grade as high as it needs to be, what reason do I have to give it my all?

Teachers cannot know the circumstances of every student, and I’m not asking them to. It would be an impossible task. What they can do is be courteous, and give students a second chance. Or, to give them a chance at all. One assignment should never be enough to kill a student’s passion for a subject.

A student who got a 20 average in the first two quarters knows they need to get a 100 in the second two quarters to even pass. One slip up, and they fail the class. A 99 becomes a dooming grade. Why should this student even try?

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