Some Mason students will be saying goodbye to letter grades. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: HANDOUT
Photo: HANDOUT

Colleges offer pass/fail grades amid pandemic. Should K-12 schools do the same?

Should we adopt pass/fail grading in view of the school shutdowns, the uneven access to online learning and the challenges students and teachers face keeping up with courses amid this pandemic?

A teacher sent me this note on the issue:

We should change all graded courses to Pass/Fail for this term.

Why, you ask? Because all our students face a broad range of challenges to their emotional, social, and physical well-being. Because many of our students have connectivity barriers. Because many of our younger students' parents or caregivers are unable to support them due to other demands, and many of our older students are playing the roles of caregiver or provider.

And let's not forget that those of us in the teaching profession are facing our own difficulties, whether related to our families, our "pivot" to remote learning, our need to work in the face of uncertainty--  or even in the face of great peril. 

How can anyone assert that grades will reflect a student's accomplishment in this context? I don't believe it can be done. Thus, I hope the education community--from first grade through graduate school--will move to Pass/Fail grading this term.

So far, the adoption of pass/fail grading is occurring in higher education, driven at times by student petitions.

Among the campuses with a pass/fail option are Emory, Vanderbilt and Duke. In explaining its decision, Duke University said, “We expect that this strategy will ease the necessary transitions into remote course delivery and promote strong engagement.”

At Agnes Scott College in Decatur, the faculty passed a policy “that all undergraduate and graduate students will be able to take any or all of their spring 2020 courses on a Pass/Fail basis. Students that opt to change their classes to Pass/Fail will still earn credit toward their degree requirements. As with the current Pass/Fail policy, if a student receives a final grade of an A in the course and the student has elected to take Pass/Fail, the student will automatically get that A instead of a Pass as their final grade.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is adopting alternate grades, including PE: Reflects performance at an A, B or C level. NE: Indicates a D or F, which will not appear on an external transcript. IE: Incomplete due to disruption.

The University of South Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida announced this week that they, too, will offer the choice of pass/fail grading.

“I encourage you to be very thoughtful as you make this decision. USF responded to this request from our students as part of our commitment to giving you every opportunity to succeed, especially in this time of uncertainty. The combination of your talents, this option, and the resources and support offered by our departments and colleges will help you navigate this semester successfully,” said Paul Dorsawl, vice president for student success at USF, in an online message to students. 

There has been no message to public college students in Georgia about grading. Today, a spokesman said the University System of Georgia is discussing the matter. 

Students at Valdosta State University are petitioning to go pass/fail, saying:  

Though the movement to online classes is understandable, the teaching methods can be less than desirable for different learning styles. Many teachers are ill prepared to educate remotely and, in turn, it will negatively impact the grades of their students. Another factor would be that many of our students do not have consistent computer access or the Wi-Fi capacity necessary to effectively take their classes online.

Georgia State University Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Wendy Hensel issued this guidance for professors:

Just as you are encouraged to consider which assessments you administer this semester, I urge you to consider how you will grade student performance. This is not business as usual, and our expectations as instructors must shift accordingly. Many of you are teaching in an online setting for the first time and will be learning along with your students. We all know that the road is likely to be bumpy and imperfect – these are not ideal conditions. Your students have experienced serious disruption in their lives and may encounter inadequate technology, financial exigencies, and other barriers to effective learning. We need to be thoughtful, flexible, and above all, compassionate toward our students and ourselves as we navigate these uncharted waters together.

The K-12 system was not as well positioned as higher education to switch to online learning, with both teachers and parents acknowledging the drawbacks and limits they are seeing. 

Given that fact, should K-12 also adapt its grading?

Final grades are not as consequential in elementary or middle school, but have impact for high school students, especially those aiming to attend select colleges. Many of the state’s high-achieving students are already in a panic over the modified online AP tests headed their way next month. They likely want those As on their report cards.

One possible compromise:  Go to universal pass/fail in lower grades and let older K-12 students decide which courses they want to be pass/fail, as many colleges are offering their students.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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