Be a Hero, Dump the Zero

  • Posted on: 17 March 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Schools across the country are frantically looking for ways to raise student achievement and state test scores. Consultants are working with school staffs to improve teaching, purchase computer programs, engage students, and redesign courses to get students “back to basics.”

But the problem with our schools’ low student achievement might be something much more basic than technology and/or textbooks. It might be the way we assign grades.

Now, let’s look at how grades can play a part in all this. It’s mid-September and Chris misses the deadline on a book report earning an “F.” Now this F is a deadly grade.  Unlike its cousin the D, the F is mathematically six times worse. You see, while an A is worth 90 points, and a B, C and D are worth 80, 70 and 60 points, the F is worth zero. So, Chris’ mid-September lapse means that subsequent efforts to redeem himself are destined to fall short. If his grades for the rest of the quarter are 80, 75 and 82, his average of 58 is still an F (80 + 75 + 82 + 0/4 = 58).

Chris, well aware of the law of averages, decides to spend his time passing notes rather than trying to pass the class. Ask him why and he’ll tell you the class is stupid!

This scenario continues to play out in schools across the country despite the fact that the unreliability of the 100-point grading scale has been noted for over one hundred years (Starch & Elliot, 1912, Starch & Elliot, 1913a, 1913b). Why does this practice persist despite longstanding concerns related to its' use?

One reason may be the conception that grades serve as incentives or disincentives for students. Common sense supports the idea that all students are motivated to earn higher grades (or at least avoid low grades) through study and academic effort. The problem is, this is only partially true.  Through the lens of expectancy theories of motivation (Bandura, 1997; Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2002), we learn that some students are motivated by traditional grading practices while others are not.  "Those students who believe that their actions or behaviors strongly influence or determine educational outcomes may be motivated to achieve success, which is marked by a high grade. At the same time, students who believe that educational outcomes are due to chance factors beyond their control may fear the shame that they associate with failure and avoid challenging academic tasks and the risk of low grades" (McCoy, 2010 p. 4, citing Bandura, 1997; Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2002). 

Translation?  Yes!  There are students who are motivated to achieve high grades. When students believe that their own actions determine educational outcomes they are much more likely to be motivated by grades.  However, some students believe that educational outcomes are due to natural abilities and not hard work.  Therefore, to fail means (in their minds) that they are stupid.  That notion is really hard on the ego - and causes kids to avoid what they see as real failure: trying hard still not succeeding.  If they try and fail, their inner voice tells them that they 'aren't smart'. They fear failure more than they desire success.  The solution, in their subconscious minds: if you think you are going to fail, stop trying!

Let's go back to our student, Chris.  Chris doesn't want to believe that he is stupid.  Therefore, the class is stupid. It's his way of saving face in a situation where believes he is doomed.  The zero, although intended to motivate him, has the opposite effect.

The practice of using a grade of zero to motivate students can adversely affect the performance of many struggling students. This begs the question, 'what is more important, our traditions or our students?' We must stop using zeros to motivate students, and find ways to encourage their ongoing effort and learning. When Chris is in the back of the class passing notes, everybody loses... the teacher, the other students, and especially Chris.

We must reach and teach all students. Before you look for more complicated ways to boost student performance, be a hero, dump the zero and encourage all of your students to keep trying!

Co-authored by Dr. Mike White and Dr. Tina McCoy

Note:  Don't see how you can easily make the shift from a standard 100-point scale without the traditional  'zeros'?  Check out The Six Point Grading Scale, developed by Educational Consulting Services.  It's easy to use and provides a consistent way to assign grades and keep hope alive for struggling students. This document can be found at the Cure for the Common Core page on this website:


Bandura, A. (1997). Self Efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and     Company.

McCoy, T. (2010). Grading in the 21st century: An analysis of reform. Boston College Literature Review.

Schunk, D.H., Pintrich, P.R. & Meece, J.L. (2008). Motivation in Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Person Prentice Hall.

Starch, D. & Elliot, E.C. (1912). Reliability of grading high school work in English. The School Review, 20(7), 442-457.

Starch, D. & Elliot, E.C. (1913). Reliability of grading work in mathematics. The School Review, 21(4), 254-259.

Starch, D. & Elliot, E.C. (1913). Reliability of grading work in history. The School Review, 21(10), 676-681.