The Misconception of Zeros
Fortunately, in New Jersey, the days where teachers and school administrators could raise a hand or paddle in an attempt to correct a student’s behavior are long gone. During the transition away from corporal punishment in our classrooms, I imagine there must have been numerous heated conversations and a belief among some that if we cannot inflict pain, or at least instill an intense fear, students will not behave, follow instruction, or learn.
Today, it would be hard to find anyone who would support corporal punishment, but sadly a “reward and punishment” mentality still permeates most schools, and some believe grade-based punishment is a motivator for students. However, grading as punishment has proven to be ineffective, and the flawed use of a “zero” grade results in inaccurate, often unrecoverable scenarios which do not promote learning – which is our primary goal. Much like corporal punishment, it makes a bold statement of compliance, “Do what I say or I will hurt you.”
Below is a statement regarding corporal punishment shared by The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Corporal punishment is a discipline method in which a supervising adult deliberately inflicts pain upon a child in response to a child's unacceptable behavior and/or inappropriate language. The immediate aims of such punishment are usually to halt the offense, prevent its recurrence and set an example for others. The purported long-term goal is to change the child's behavior and to make it more consistent with the adult's expectations.(https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Policy_Statements/1988/Corporal_Punishment_in_Schools.asp)
Now read the statement again, this time replacing the words “corporal punishment” with “assigning a zero.” There is a misconception that zeros are an instructional practice, when in reality, they are actually a punitive practice. In the case of zeros, the unacceptable behavior is often a missing assignment and the belief that a zero will prevent its recurrence, but this grade can create the perception that it will be impossible for the student to recover, and may end up disenfranchising him or her further. Assigning a zero, in some cases, is like attaching an anchor on what is likely already a drowning student. This runs counter to our educational goal of instilling a love of learning, igniting curiosity, and fostering motivation.
A zero on a 100-point scale challenges logic and mathematical accuracy. On a typical 100-point scale, the interval between grades is typically 10 points, with categories of 100-90, 89-80, 79-70 and so on. Thus, assigning a zero for a grade skews the average and relative performance dramatically, as the student will be getting nearly 60 points below even those who received failing grades. Using the flawed logic that this somehow promotes learning, why stop at zero? If teachers assigned “below zero” grades such as -200, should we expect even better outcomes? As ludicrous as that scenario may sound, it is an extension of flawed mathematical understanding and an incorrect notion that this type of severe punishment will motivate a student to want to learn.
A similar detrimental result of a zero can be felt even on a four-point scale. A zero, although mathematically accurate on this scale, can still have a significant and adverse influence on an average score. For example, most teacher evaluation systems in New Jersey contain a 1-4 scale; the lowest score for no evidence shall be recorded as a 1, not a zero. If zeros were in play, as there are limited “areas” to be scored (much like a student’s report card), just two or three when averaged in for a final score would be unrecoverable.
Giving a student a zero for not completing an assignment allows the student to escape accountability and results in no learning at all. Instead, the consequence for not completing an assignment should be additional work to guarantee and demonstrate that the student learns. When we assign relevant and meaningful tasks or assignments to a student and value is seen in its completion, we do not need a carrot and stick approach to entice completion. Sadly, many assignments are given as a means of compliance, with the threat of a zero used to punish students who do not comply. However, when meaningful and personalized assignments are created, it makes sense that every opportunity to complete them would be available as learning, not merely compliance and completion, is the end goal.
The work of behavioral scientists, like Daniel Pink and others, have shown that compliance has very little to do with learning and motivation. Thus, teachers should not be using grades as a measure of compliance; instead, grades must specifically be an accurate and precise measure of what a student knows against a standard. In the measurement of knowledge and learning, a zero provides no insight into the student’s capability. Did the student skip the assignment because they did not understand? Or were they too busy? Or did they not need to do the assignment as it did not add to their learning? We need to understand the root cause of things that interfere with learning rather than simply escape accountability with an outdated and unfair practice of punishing with a zero.
Long-standing, ineffective routines continue to persist out of tradition, and are cursorily justifiable or suitably innocuous enough to escape scrutiny. We must have the courage to address practices that can be harmful to the learning process, like the practice of giving zeros. These processes create impediments to learning and discourage students, and therefore must change.