Pass/fail would derail


Jack Crovitz

Amid the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some community members have called for Horace Mann to switch from our usual letter grading spectrum to a pass/fail system this semester. Other private schools, most notably Fieldston and Trinity, have already done so. This scheme may seem appealing at first, considering our new academic setting. However, we should reject this proposal both because arguments for a pass/fail system overlook key factors of HM Online and because such a transition would significantly detract from students’ class experiences and academic futures.
Before arguing for a system of grading, it’s important to define the purposes of grades in general. As it happens, I had a conversation in an English class about this before spring break, and we eventually came up with two main objectives for a grading system: encouraging academic engagement and providing feedback to students and external observers such as colleges. A pass-fail system falls short of both of these goals.
Within a grading spectrum such as letter grades, students have the opportunity to receive a variety of grades and are therefore motivated to work towards higher ones. Even in normal times, some students—including myself—need this extra kick to continue working hard when the material is not personally engaging.
During HM Online, the physical disconnect between students and teachers makes it easier than ever to disengage from classwork. It is far easier just to keep your microphone muted over a Zoom call than refuse to participate in a physical class, and it is easier to neglect classwork when there are no in-person classes. In such an environment, grades become even more important to incentivize students to engage in class discussions and academic work. Many students don’t need the reminder, but even if a small portion of the class begins to slack it can significantly lower the quality of classes.
In addition, continuing with grades could help HM students—especially 11th graders—in college admissions. Grades from the spring semester of junior year are usually among the most important for college admissions.. Although college admissions officers won’t look at this semester’s grades the way they usually would, they will still want proof that students are continuing to engage with material. A pass/fail system simply wouldn’t give them that evidence and could end up hurting students’ chances of going to the college of their choice. Whether we should alter our normal grading system “is a question of school culture,” Head of College Counseling Canh Oxelson said on a webinar on Tuesday. We want colleges to know our academic culture is strong enough to withstand this disruption.
Some may argue that the grades of the student body as a whole will fall this semester due to the pandemic. I have confidence that our teachers will be able to continue assigning a regular variety of grades, but even if grades generally fell slightly, receiving them would still be more beneficial than not. Of course, college admissions officers and others will consider this semester’s grades in the context of the pandemic, but some evidence of academic engagement is better than none.
Despite these benefits of a grading spectrum, many community members insist that we should switch to a pass/fail system for HM Online. There are three main arguments that advocates of such a system make, but none of them adequately warrant such an immense policy shift.
Some argue that HM Online creates potential opportunities for students to violate the Honor Code and cheat on assessments and that it does not provide sufficient opportunities for teachers to grade students fairly. However, this overlooks the amount of creativity that teachers have with shaping their assessments and the variety of assessments that they can administer.
In the humanities, nearly all assessments were already conducted digitally before school closed: many essays, research papers, and other such projects were already written and handed in almost exclusively online. While HM Online may make it more difficult to safely administer some humanities assessments (such as in-class essays), the vast majority of assessments will be just as secure as before. As for participation grades, if teachers feel that HM Online provides sufficient opportunity for students to participate, they can choose to factor in the second half of the semester; if not, then teachers can assign participation grades based exclusively on the first half.
In STEM classes and others where in-class assessments are the norm, HM Online does present a challenge to teachers to ensure their assessments are secure from cheating. However, many math, science, and world language classes already administered some form of take-home assessments before the pandemic, and these formats (problem sets, projects, take-home labs, etc.) can certainly be expanded. Teachers may also choose to value engagement, homework completion, or other factors when deciding grades. Nothing about the nature of HM Online necessarily prevents administering secure assessments or assigning fair grades.
The final major argument made in favor of switching to a pass/fail system of grading is that students should prioritize caring for their and their families’ physical and mental health over grades. I agree: even in normal times, a student’s well-being should come first. However, I have confidence that our teachers will be understanding of students’ personal needs. Nearly all of my teachers emailed their classes to ask if any students have unique conditions that might interfere with their classwork—such as being far from home, having a sick family member, or caring for siblings—so that they can work out a personalized learning system. I’m sure that even the teachers who did not explicitly state this would also be understanding and encourage students to prioritize their health first and foremost.
None of the arguments in favor of switching to a pass/fail system are compelling enough to warrant a disruptive policy swing that abandons the benefits of a grading spectrum. As a community, we should reject this proposal that would only harm the students it aims to protect.