Pass/fail should prevail


Adam Frommer

In the midst of such an unparalleled crisis, it would be unfair to assign semester grades to students: instead, the school should consider a changing to pass/fail system with teacher reports. As COVID-19 has left the school community physically separated, teaching and grading in an entirely new experimental format, and under the stresses of a health crisis, would both be impossible to fairly institute and serve as an inappropriate pressure during these desperate times.
Before explaining why a pass/fail system would be a better option than our typical grading system, it is important to address some reasonable worries of such a setup. As with any change, some students and faculty alike surely have reservations about pass/fail.
The most compelling concern against pass/fail is the potential lack of motivation from the student body to complete assigned tasks. While that worry is entirely legitimate, there are also examples of schools without grades that have lots of student engagement. Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, for example, is a top-tier private school in NYC that issues teacher-reports at the end of each term rather than letter grades. At Saint Ann’s, students are invested in their work in a more process-oriented way. Teacher reports can even more accurately describe a student’s effort in a class without the added stress of a letter attached to their name. If Horace Mann were to institute a pass/fail system, the school should include teacher reports in order to keep students motivated. These reports wouldn’t necessarily have to be listed on official transcripts but could be sent to families in order to secure some student accountability.
The second argument against pass/fail is that students would feel “robbed” of their hard work in the first half of the second semester. That thought implies that students work hard in order to attain high semester grades: not for the intellectual excitement of doing the work. A pass/fail system would not in any way undo the importance or value of the effort put into the third quarter of the year.
The last argument against pass/fail has to do with college admissions. There seems to be a theory that juniors would be at a disadvantage without grades to show for this semester, but colleges clearly understand the context of COVID-19. Students cannot be punished for circumstances out of their control.
While a few concerns about pass/fail are well-grounded, there are numerous reasons as to why such a system would be much better than grades during this time. First, HM Online has the potential to increase opportunities for academic dishonesty, especially on timed assessments. With teachers unable to monitor students while they take tests, more students can (and, unfortunately, will) easily cheat without any repercussions. By no means are the majority of students academically dishonest, but as students learn how to get away with breaking the rules unnoticed, more and more students may likely cheat. That’s the sad reality. And, a grading system could further penalize those students who remain academically honest. It is easy to say that cheating would be minimal because it breaks the Honor Code. But, in a school with so much pressure to achieve good grades, some students will bypass their morals for a “free” edge against their peers: an advantage that is much easier to get away with during HM Online than on campus.
Furthermore, the medium of HM Online learning is entirely experimental for teachers and students alike, so it is not fair to grade students on their ability to learn online. In many cases, teachers are adapting their test formatting to minimize academic dishonesty. They might create new formats of assessing—a reality that students will have to adapt to. Many students will find these new modes of testing confusing and hard to navigate. There will also be less time to review and ask clarifying questions, and many teachers are relying on students learning lessons from textbooks and supplemental videos. More importantly, online learning is not easy to adjust to for many students and teachers alike. Oftentimes, for example, a significant amount of class time is simply spent trying to navigate technology. Plus, even if technological problems are minimized as our community adjusts, it is unfair to thrust students into a completely new mode of digesting information while assigning a grade based on their ability to adapt. Everybody’s learning process is different. Yes, some students may have no problem learning online. Others may find it challenging to process information over Zoom. Adding the pressure of grades to this transition is not fair to those who will struggle to adjust. Ultimately, nearly every part of the learning process will change in HM Online, an experimental process that is not fair to grade.
Additionally, HM Online will make it far more difficult for teachers to properly assess their students. Most classes are meeting one to two times per week through Zoom, which is anywhere from one-half to one-fifth of the amount of class time students usually get. For classes in which participation is a significant part of students’ grades, it would be very challenging and unfair to assess students with such little time face-to-face. In order for teachers to appropriately grade students’ work, they must teach a sufficient amount of material to administer enough tests to see a large enough sample of a given student’s work. With so little class time, there is no way that there would be enough material for as many assessments as required: especially for math, science, and language classes that assess set amounts of material covered.
Aside from the challenges of fairly grading students, it is also crucial to understand the dire situation that our community, along with nearly all communities around the world, is living in. Grades should not be the first priority at this moment in time. The health and economic reality of COVID-19 has placed many individuals and families in difficult circumstances. Students and faculty are caring for loved ones, living in places far from home, and worrying about sick friends and family. Students are taking care of their younger siblings, as their parents work from home, and some teachers are caring for young children while conducting classes on Zoom. To grade learners in the midst of such horrible life circumstances is not a fair added stress. Knowing the drive to achieve perfection in students at the school, grades will become top-priority, potentially one above keeping family safe and healthy. In such unprecedented times, students should not feel forced to put letters on their report card above familial responsibilities.
Aside from coronavirus, a system with teacher reports and no grades is already a compelling idea. Grades foster competition, unwarranted stress, and an intellectual hierarchy. A pass/fail system just might alleviate the all-too-present student obsession with perfection. As many schools rethink their processes of evaluating their students, COVID-19 has given the school a unique opportunity to try out a new way of grading students without committing to it for more than a semester.
Lastly, it is important to mention that countless other schools have moved to a pass/fail system for this semester. Many colleges and universities have some form of pass/fail, and multiple New York City private schools have already made the switch, including our peers, Trinity and Fieldston. As we continue adapting to the obstacles of HM Online, this quarter will not be business as usual. As such, the school should adopt a grading system that meets the needs of an ever-changing educational platform.