Should Pass/Fail Grading Be the New Normal Once Things Go Back to “Normal”?

With every child in America having to home school because of COVID-19, many schools have switched to pass/fail grading. Should this be the new normal?

by Eric Alt
A pencil next to a filled out multiple choice quiz with the words pass and fail next to it

With schools closed nationwide and quarantine life our collective new reality during coronavirus, we’ve all had to come to terms with houses and apartments serving as homes, offices, and schools all at the same time. While it’s been difficult for families to juggle, the situation has also forced teachers to embrace “virtual classrooms.” Many struggled to replace exhausted review material with brand new lessons. And as weeks stretched into months, schools faced a new problem: how to grade any of it. Letter grades don’t really work. For many, Pass/Fail is the answer.

As much as we’d like otherwise, the world simply can’t operate as it did before. Our current circumstances have to be taken into consideration. This makes standard letter grading tough to justify when students aren’t able to operate within the normal, structured school day. It also makes it more difficult for students who don’t have access to technology or find themselves having to assist in childcare for younger siblings.

The most difficult thing is that there is no clear consensus on how to proceed. As a recent Washington Post report puts it, “Some districts have ditched traditional letter grades for at least the fourth quarter. Some have opted for credit or no credit. Some say any grades given during remote learning should only boost a student’s academic standing, not diminish it.”

Meanwhile, the New York Department of Education is sort of going with a Pass/Fail system…but seems oddly terrified of calling it that. In a conference call with area elected officials announcing that students would receive only two grades – “satisfactory” or “needs improvement” — New York State Senator John Liu said, “The DOE was emphatic that this was not a pass-fail system, that, in fact, is a satisfactory versus needs improvement, and that’s to not fail any students but to give all students some, at least minimal level of feedback on how they performed.”


With all of this uncertainty and mass confusion, it’s time to consider why we have letter grades in the first place. Should a broader approach to measuring scholastic progression be part of our “new normal” even after school doors reopen?

Do Letter Grades Make the Grade?

To most people, Pass/Fail is a lesser option to letter grades because it feels arbitrary or vague. But letter grades aren’t as ironclad as many may have been led to believe.

“Each district’s grading policy differs, sometimes school-to-school and sometimes even teacher-to-teacher,” explains Audre Midura, Supervisor of School Community Partnerships, Mental, Brain, and Behavioral Health, and Social Emotional Learning for the Nassau Boards of Cooperative Education Services in Long Island, NY.

“This is why so many states that send a larger percentage of their high school graduates to colleges are dragging their feet in announcing the closing of schools for the year,” says Midura. “The states’ education departments are working out grading in the COVID age of home instruction and trying to figure out how to ‘fairly’ rank students without using grades.”

If you think about it, she adds, the reason schools use alphanumerical grades in the upper levels is solely for competitive purposes. “It’s totally arbitrary and political,” she says.

In a recent article on Quartz, a sixth grade English teacher from Utah named Mary Lawlor mentions how a strict number or letter grade wasn’t just arbitrary, but also breeding a school filled with “perfectionists” who were so obsessed with numbers that they weren’t actually learning important things such as resilience, creative thinking, and academic risk-taking.

Part of the reasoning behind the use of Pass/Fail in lower grades, Midura explains, is largely due to the fairly recent understanding that holding a child back a grade often does more harm than good.

Pass/Fail grades, per Midura, are usually used in elementary schools to indicate to parents that their child has or has not met standards or requirements set for successful mastery of the grade curriculum.

“Even children who technically ‘fail’ are promoted to the next grade but provided with supports. Children who have cognitive or other developmental disabilities may be considered ‘ungraded’ and placed in smaller ‘self-contained’ classrooms with a modified curriculum. But, they are not given an F.”

The Future of Pass/Fail Grading

If there’s a silver lining to be found during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it’s fast-tracked innovation. Companies that toyed with the idea of remote workers abruptly had to figure out how to manage an entirely remote workforce with little or no prep time. Restaurants have had to rethink their business models on the fly, in ways that will likely be permanent. Similarly, these lost months of schooling may give educators a chance to pause and reflect on what’s working and what isn’t.

And it’s not just educators who are getting a new look at how schools function. Parents, now having to take on the added role of teacher’s aide, are finding that rigid systems just don’t work for every student.

“My daughter has been struggling a bit because she has to type everything now,” says Ingrid Iglehart, a mother of a third and fifth grader in New Jersey. “She’s an active and engaged student in the classroom, but the constant use of screens and typing aren’t allowing her to find creative solutions, which is hindering her.”

Greg Richmond, the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), was quoted in a 2016 report that showed just how ineffective “virtual schools” are when measured against traditional classrooms. In the report, Richmond points to “years of evidence accumulating about how poorly these [online charter] schools are performing” – mostly due to many of the issues detailed by Iglehart.

When asked if Pass/Fail could be a standard going forward, Midura is skeptical. She says, sadly, that letter grades are remain really important to a lot of things outside of a child’s education.

“It all has to do with colleges and universities deciding who they want to accept,” she says. “The college admission scandal? That’s just a small part of a much larger inequity problem propagated by college and universities that make big money on sports, merchandising, alumni donations, research grants, and a whole host of things that have nothing to do with educating kids.”

In the meantime, however, the pandemic is forcing students, teachers, and parents to think creatively, be resilient, and take risks. Hopefully these positive lessons will stick long after memorized dates and equations have faded from memory.

So, if Pass/Fail doesn’t become the new normal, it will hopefully ensure that we don’t take letter grades at face value any more, and start considering a child’s education as more than just a conveyor belt to college.