No Zeros Until…

Several months ago, after much reflection, examination of school data, and conversations with a few teachers, I proclaimed to my staff that I did not want them to assign a zero to any student until they intervene in some way; talk with the student to find out why they did not turn in the assignment, call a parent to let them know an assignment was missed, do something before recording a zero in the grade book.

There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth, meetings after the meeting, some cheers and head nods, and every other emotion imaginable. I should not have been surprised because the timing of my proclamation was bad (criticism well deserved), but I was. I was surprised because we’ve had some high quality professional development over the last decade or so that includes Total Quality Management by David Langford, Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design, Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships, and Professional Learning Communities including the Pyramid of Intervention all in addition to creating common assessments and learning targets. With all that knowledge, I figured we were ready to look more closely at why we still automatically assign zeros for missed assignments. Well, like most things, some were ready and thankful while others were… not so much. Ah, the controversy of grades continues.

Doug Reeves, Thomas Guskey, David Langford, and Ken O’Conner among others have researched this for years and have thoroughly explained why zeros create a huge hole for students to dig themselves out of. So why assign them, especially on a 100 point scale. It’s not as damaging if using a 4 or 5 point scale. However, the point is to find out why a student did not turn in an assignment and if the assignment is important to their learning, then why wouldn’t we want it turned in? Just intervene…

Some of the arguments against this reasoning have been:
“We are not teaching students to be responsible if we allow them to turn in work late.”
“They are not going to be prepared for college and the real world because deadlines are deadlines. Period.”
“We are teaching students to be lazy and to procrastinate.”

I understand these arguments, but I don’t necessarily agree with them. Learning is a continuous process and real world deadlines are flexible. There are deadlines and penalties, but companies want their payments regardless if it’s on time or not. A deadline is a deadline, but they want to be paid.

Okay, back to my point. Once the dust settled and there was further clarification, many teachers began extending deadlines, talking with students about missed assignments, and examining the assignments they were giving to students. As a result, we had the largest number of incompletes at the end of each quarter than ever before. This may not sound like a point to celebrate, but it is because teachers were given students chances and many responded.

After recently talking with a couple of my teachers while at a workshop I can see that there is still a need for more clarification about the expectations. For example, incompletes should not go on forever. After the teacher has intervened by talking with the student, contacting a parent, and/or assigning the student to the PASS Room for additional help, etc. and there has been no effort to complete the assignment, then a zero is warranted and it’s time to move on.

We are still working through a number of questions and concerns about the “No Zero Until…” guideline and I’m very excited that we are able to discuss this openly and honestly as a staff. Many agree, many disagree, and many are intervening with creative ideas. What are your thoughts about zeros for work not turned in? How do you handle this as a teacher or administrator?

Be Great,


This post is cross-post at


  1. Love the direction you’re taking, Dwight. Danny Hill and Jayson Navemight be some guys you’d want to reach out to. They’ve got a terrific book and tons of case studies. Their message is real world, practical and teaches students to be responsible for the work. Their book, The Power of ICU, is a great guideline showing schools how they can start and implement a no zeros policy. If I sound like a raving fan, it’s because I am.

    June 27, 2011
    • Hi Randy,

      Thanks again for your support! We’ll continue to make progress in this area, I’m sure. It takes a major paradigm shift, but we are off to good start!

      Be Great,


      June 27, 2011
    • Thanks Randy! I’ll definitely get the book and I appreciate your encouragement!

      Be Great,


      July 1, 2011
  2. Dwight,

    For years, I struggled with grading my students on a 100-point scale. That 0-59 is disproportionately set against kids ever catching up when they get behind. I had to be subversive in my grading decisions, as the traditional scale was the expectation until a colleague of mine asked the question, “By what right do we fail students, as 14, 15, even 16 year olds, when that F can put them on track to fail FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES?” Those Fs teachers assign to 9th and 10th graders, who don’t even have fully-developed brains, set them up for a rocky road through high school, to say the least. No individual teacher should have the power to destroy the life of a child who doesn’t yet have the maturity and persistence to make things right.

    Stand your guns on this — your students need your vision!

    June 27, 2011
  3. Lynn Hardin said:

    Dear Dwight,
    What a wonderful example of partnership between the teachers and students. Do you have more specific examples of what worked and what did not? What does PASS stand for?

    In partnership,

    June 27, 2011
    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks for your support! There are many teachers that have been doing this for years and I’m thankful for that. The PASS room stands for Positive Assistance for Student Success and students are assigned to attend by an administrator once they are reported by the teacher. It’s a way to provide additional help to students are struggle with assignments. Teachers come before school and after school to assist students in the PASS room a couple of days a week. It’s been fairly successful and continues to be a work in progress. It’s becoming a way of doing business. To make it easier, one of our teachers Ryan Kitsmiller @Rkitsmiller has created a Google form to make tracking student progress much easier for teachers and administrators. We’ll share this in August and it should make things much easier. I’m so very proud of they way our teachers have responded! Really, really proud.

      For example, one of our math teachers didn’t allow students in one of her classes if they had missing assignments. She felt that she didn’t have enough evidence of their preparation for the test. I thought, what a great idea and students began to take their homework more seriously. As a result, test scores improved… and students were able to truly demonstrate their learning. I’ll share more examples in another blog soon!

      Be Great,


      July 1, 2011
      • Oops! I meant to say she didn’t allow them to take the test until they turned in all homework assignments from the unit.


        July 1, 2011
  4. Renee said:

    This policy concerns me as a teacher and as a parent. So I have a slew of questions for you.

    At what point do the zeroes go in?
    If a student still does not turn in work by the end of the semester can I put in zeroes at that point?
    And why would ANY student want to turn in work on time when they are allowed to slack as much as they want without consequences?
    Is late work worth less?

    As a teacher, will I be given extra time to do all of these interventions?
    Do the counselors and administrators help at all or is this one more thing for the teacher to do?

    What do you tell parents when their child is “passing” according to the gradebook until the end of the semester and all of the sudden their student is “failing”? Many parents don’t care about the grade unless zeroes are in the gradebook.

    I just spent all my teaching time dealing with the slackers rather than the high achievers, if I were the parent of a high achiever I would be furious! Do you track students to get the high achievers out?

    I promise, I am interested in your answers and not just playing devil’s advocate!

    June 27, 2011
    • Hi Renee,

      Thanks for sharing your concerns and for responding. I understand your frustration and apprehension. Now, to address your questions:

      1. The zero will be recorded once a student fails to complete an assignment after the teacher has made very easy attempts that really require no more work other than a conversation. One way of doing this is to find out why the assignment was not completed or to ask the student to show what they have done. In some cases, it wasn’t completed because they just didn’t understand what to do. The teacher will decide when it’s due and it shouldn’t go on past the quarter.

      2. Some students (small percentage) slack with a zero or not. Zeros are not a motivator for some students, which is not new or a surprise. We are simply telling a student, “we care enough about you that we are not going to let you off the hook. The assignment is to help you.” We can perpetuate slacking by accepting the behavior. We are not going to do that. For example, one of our English teachers nagged, bugged, and encouraged one of her students to complete a writing assignment for three weeks. He finally turned it in and it was quality work. His response was, “I did it because I got tired of you asking me for it. You just wouldn’t let up.” To his surprise, he realized she cared enough about him to stay on him. This improved their relationship and his effort in her class. Was it annoying to the both of them? Yes, it was but he demonstrated his learning and was successful in the class.

      3. It’s a total team effort. Teachers, administrators and counselors are involved. It requires a shift in thinking, but I must say that I am very proud of how we’ve responded to the challenge… very proud. Now, it’s not perfect, but we are making small quality steps, which we celebrate.

      4. Parents check students grades via our electronic system. They see the “I” and then remind their student to get it in. Some teachers weight the “I” as a zero and then simply let the student and parent know that once the assignment is completed (quality) then the grade will change. The result is that the teacher, parent, and student work together. Again, it’s not perfect, but at least there are conversations about learner performance, which is always a good thing.

      5. In terms of being “furious” because students are learning, that’s not something I can address. We have to focus on each individual student and we know that students don’t learn at the same pace. All we are doing is trying to do a better job of improving learner performance. You are focusing on fairness and equality regarding deadlines and I completely understand that. Our goal is to still stress the deadlines, but try to understand what’s going on when the deadline is not met and a student’s need for more time. It’s definitely an adjustment to our thinking across the board. For example, our 9th grade Integrated Science teachers worked together as a PLC to work with students before school, after school, and during their conference period to complete quality assignments. Students had to give up some of their lunch period or SH time to complete assignments or retake tests. It took awhile, but they realized if they wanted their free time then they must do the work and do it right the first time. Some students value their time more than they value the grade. I have to stress that it took some time, many conversations and tweaking the system, but they persevered to come up with a system that worked for the students and themselves. Parents were elated and supportive!

      I use this analogy: when a child is given chores to do and they don’t do them, some parents make them stop what they are doing and get them done. They typically don’t say, “since you didn’t take our the trash and fold the clothes last night like asked you to, then forget it.” Typically, the chores have to be done and it teaches the child to be responsible. Letting them off the hook is reinforcing the behaviors we don’t want in my opinion.

      If there are more slackers than not, then there may be other problems that have to be addressed.

      I hope I was able to address all your concerns. If not, please feel free to email at I truly appreciate you taking the time to respond!

      Be Great,


      July 1, 2011
  5. Gena Montgomery said:

    I have always struggled with the 0-69 range for a score of F, so I love the idea of no 0 until…. I don’t necessarily think work turned in late should receive full credit, either. One strategy I have used in my high school technology classes that works well is to include a grade of M for missing. Our grade book software counts this as a zero, but my students and parent know that as long as an assignment says M, there is still time to get some credit. Many of my students check their grades daily and will come to me to take care of any Ms as soon as I post them. This does EXACTLY what I want…it puts the responsibility of taking care of the grade in the students’ hands. No surprise for parents who are checking grades since the M figures in as a 0. And since I’m in a lab setting, all of my students have access to their grades through our online grade portal.

    June 28, 2011
  6. Shauna Boyce said:

    I’m so happy to hear you and your staff are having this conversation, and commit to continuing it. So many high schools “talk the talk” of no zeros, but so very few actually do the uphill walking…. We are having these same conversations at our school – zeros are a last resort.
    I love the professional conversations around each individual student and how each of those conversations inevitably comes back to what’s best for the learner, rather than what is convenient for the teacher.

    June 28, 2011
  7. Tom said:

    My principal has a quote that I like. Don’t “give” students zeros, but if they earn them they can be assigned after you have worked with the student and\or the parent.

    June 28, 2011
  8. Karen said:

    As a parent, as well as an educator, I appreciate you tackling this topic. Let’s be honest, giving a student a zero on a scale of 1 – 100 creates a mathematical hole they can never climb out of. I know. My daughter received two zeroes as an 11th grade student and received an F for the quarter.

    Can I make this personal? She fell behind. She was in the fall drama club production, in color guard (fall season), taking challenging courses and then got sick and was out for several days. She never caught up. My husband and I met with the teacher who was inflexible. I asked what was the educational rationale for failing a student and for giving zeroes? Isn’t teaching about helping students learn, to understand content? How did failing her help her to learn or to care about learning? Never got answers I understood. She failed and life moved on. But I will never forget a teacher’s unwillingness to be flexible, to promote learning, or to rethink their grading practices. It was about control, obedience and compliance.

    So thank you for challenging your teachers’ thinking. No matter what, they must have a sound educational rationale for everything they do and be able to defend it.

    July 1, 2011
  9. Dwight, what a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Thank you for addressing the way that many teachers (and adults as a whole) do not extend the same respect to their students that they do to their colleagues. As a graduate student, I missed many deadlines but was never punished with a zero; I wonder why secondary teachers feel justified in giving zeros when they themselves would be outraged at receiving one in a continuing ed course. As Karen says in her response above, it is about power and control and intimidation. Zeros are punitive unless they are merely proxies for missing work, and we are truly unfair to students when we let the mathematical consequences of a zero destroy the manifestation of their effort and progress.

    July 3, 2011
  10. Jacki Russell said:

    I am beginning an admin internship at a high school that offers SMART lunch which is designed to help students through focused remediation on essential skills in English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Language/ CTE. It is assigned by administrators upon teacher referral (we are building in an acceleration component this school year based on teacher, student, and parent feedback). Two challenges currently faced are students not showing up and getting all the kids through lunch expediently in order to get to the SMART lunch session. Have you had similar challenges and if so how have you handled them?

    Love the blogs! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    July 4, 2011
  11. Jason Harbor said:

    Good to hear more educators speaking to this subject. My school division has had policy regarding no-zeroes for the last few years. We have spent a lot of time with the work of Ken O’Connor (a Canadian). Most students have appreciated this, but there are still a few who have learned to “play the system.”

    July 5, 2011
  12. David said:

    The problem is with the way people are adding points to obtain a final grade. In my experience most teachers give little or no thought to how to assign and weight individual scores in an overall grade.

    April 25, 2012
  13. Dwight Carter said:


    Thanks for your reply. I agree with your statement. Doug Reeves, Ken O’Conner, and Tom Guskey address this very concern. This is something we definitely have to explore.

    Be Great,


    April 25, 2012

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