The Pass/Fail System
In an article discussing whether or not a pass/fail grading system can reflect a student’s progress, Bonnie M. Miller, MD advocates for criteria based learning. She accurately points out that “A pass/fail grade indicates simply that a student has achieved an expected level of competence” and that this information is critical to understand if this student has fulfilled his or her obligations. She says that “students should be evaluated on their initiative, engagement with and concern for their own learning, interpersonal skills, [and] teamwork skills,” and that a student who meets this criteria qualifies for an A.
Another commentary by Adrina Kalet, says that “both faculty and students should enthusiastically engage in an evaluation system that facilitates our fulfilling this responsibility.” She advocates for a pass/fail system, but one that provides enough feedback for a student to be able to identify his or her strengths and weaknesses. She describes that the lack of letter grades, accompanied by the lack of reliable assessment, places too much unnecessary pressure on students as well as too much emphasis on the reputation of the school. She summarizes, “I don’t care as much as many students do about whether we use pass/fail or other systems. I care that we measure what is important and act on those measures to ensure excellence in our graduates.”
In another article, Patricia L. Scrifinny proposes a “standards-based” system, based on specific objectives that a student needs to meet. She describes the way that students sometimes succeed based solely on homework, quizzes, and extra-credit, rather than complete mastery of a subject. Students who are legitimately learning might do poorly because of missing assignments, and students who are not understanding might do well because of those 10 points they might get every night for completing their homework. Using this system, “Gifted and talented students can be truly challenged in a standards-based classroom because if they show early mastery of fundamental skills and concepts, they can then concentrate on more challenging work that is at higher levels” and “Students who struggle can continue to retest and use alternate assessments until they show proficiency, and they are not penalized for needing extended time.” this way, every student gets his or her needs completely filled.
Letter grading is a simple as grading can be. Simply put, a student who takes a 10 point test and receives 8 points out of 10 earns an 80% mark. Period. This is, by far, the easiest way to grade when there is one definitive answer to every question. So maybe it works for Math and Science, but when you get into questions that involve symbolism, tone, mood, comparison, effects, causes, and much more, the answer is not always black or white. How can you tell me that I understood 85% of what theme means? You can’t. “This is a ranking system which gives no clue to the actual level of course content mastery,”
It is possible that letter grades even encourage dishonesty in learning. Excuses are made, homework is copied, and many methods of cheating are implemented, all because a student would “rather cheat than repeat.” Students, in general, would much prefer compromising their learning over failing a course. That’s the horrific truth. No one wants to fail.
Grades have proven themselves to reduce a student’s work ethic as well as her interest in the subject and the quality of her work. They’re not trustworthy, they’re not effective, and they’re beginning to draw a line between academics and actual learning. (source).
In theory, developing a rubric of objectives and deciding whether or not they’ve been met would be a great alternative to our current letter grading system. However, these changes may be extremely hard to implement. A given teacher might have 100+ students, and going through each and every one of them could prove itself to be an impossible task. It’s much easier to say that a student has received 8 points out of 10 than to, essentially, read her mind to find out if she knows something or not. In reality, this letter system is likely to stick around. In the future, though, if there is a way to increase 1 on 1 attention and to decrease class sizes, these changes could (and should) be made.