Is the Pass/Fail System a Pass?

What are the positive and negative benefits of a pass/fail system?

May 1, 2020


Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Students work on their schoolwork from home.


On Thursday, April 23, 2020, the Tustin Unified School District (TUSD) announced that they would be adopting a grading system that allows students to choose whether to take the default option of a “credit/incomplete” or a letter grade.


As stated in the email sent out to the families of TUSD, “Final report cards for high school students (grades 9-12) will receive marks of “Credit” or “Incomplete.”  Letter grades will only be issued for classes selected by students. Under both options, students will receive a “Credit” (or letter grade) that is equal to or higher than their third quarter grade, which was completed before school closures began.”

In order to receive a letter grade, students will have to submit a Google Form to their teacher by Friday, May 22, 2020.



Original Article:

On Thursday, April 16, 2020, the Tustin Unified School District decided to suggest a “credit/incomplete” system as a possible grading method for second semester grades for high school students. 


Even days before the tentative news was released by teachers, there were rumors arising at the possibility of such a grading system – most of which were either against or for the system.


The day I heard the news, I had been on a conference call with my teacher, and we took time to discuss what we liked and disliked about it. I will not be the first to admit that both of us viewed this system as, well, flawed.


From a teacher’s point of view, the new system obviously has its flaws as it gave certain students known as “slackers” the opportunity to “slack-off.” It would be inevitable to see a decline in effort and participation among certain students since there was no longer the drive to receive a top grade.


From a student’s point of view, the new system once again, has flaws only because some of us want to see a grade we worked hard for rather than a simple pass or fail.


“A ‘pass’ grade shows you took the course,” said Robert Farrington on Forbes. “But it doesn’t exactly drive home the point that you worked very hard.”


Yet Farrington also pointed out that despite a credit-grade not reflecting a student’s drive to do well, many colleges are still working to adopt a “credit/incomplete” grading system, the reason being that there is more to a struggle over a letter grade when there are bigger problems occurring in light of the pandemic. 


“This is a moment that has been characterized by widespread anxiety, uncertainty, social, and geographic disruption,” said Duke University in regards to their changed grading system. “As academic leaders of this great university, we believe that bold action is necessary to maximize undergraduates’ curricular engagement.”


Yes, I initially saw such a grading system as flawed. But I also have both respect and agreement toward the new policy. When a few Beckman High School students on social media tried to get me – and many other students – to sign a petition to reverse the implementation of a pass-or-fail grading system, I took a step back and did not irrationally jump to sign my signature. Simply because I had seen light in a system a handful saw as dark when I had taken the time to think about it.


Talking with my teacher and parents about the subject had gotten me to see that yes, we personally did not like the system, but in times like these, we would push aside our personal wants and objections to accept it because of the bigger problems at large. 


Not only could students and their families be directly affected by Covid-19, those at home could be suffering from other problems: depression, anxiety, domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc. For some students, school was their safe-place. 


“We’re all going to need to prioritize empathy, kindness and trust as we move through the next few weeks and maybe months,” said David M. Perry from CNN.


Trust, in particular, is going to be a key part of this semester. Students will need to trust that their teachers will be there to help. Teachers will need to trust that their students are putting in the effort to get their work done and not neglecting their assignments simply because they know they are already going to pass. The term “integrity” comes to mind, and in times like such, it will be the ultimate test of who is being honest and doing what is right when no one is looking. 


On a brighter note, students bored at home can view this time in quarantine as a beneficial opportunity. According to Jonathan Zimmerman on the Inside Higher Ed, the pass-fail system goes way back in time to the 1960s.


“With the pass-fail option, an enthusiastic journalist wrote in 1967, students would be more likely to explore areas outside their academic comfort zones,” Zimmerman said.


As a student who spent the last few years stressed about school, time is a gift. Now that we have all the time in the world and the pass-fail system is taking the stress off our shoulders, take this blessing and do some self-discovering. 


I speak for most when I say that many of us are dedicating this time to our passions or to helping our community. Students have tried online forms of community service, such as spreading productivity through photos and videos. Even a task as simple as staying-at-home is help to the community. 


Overall, an attempt to change an already implemented “credit/incomplete” system is an attempt to satisfy one’s wants and a return to normalcy. Evidently, we will not be returning to normal anytime soon, as things are going to be different even after the pandemic is over. Rather than trying to reverse change, accept it and try to view it positively. 


In this time, many of us are already blessed to be safe and healthy at home, so do not take that for granted.


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