Descriptions, definitions,synonyms, organizer terms
Generally we think of a pass/fail option being when a student does satisfactory work , they receive a "P": when they do unsatisfactory work, they receive an "F". Not so simple according to the following essays.
Application in classrooms and similar settings
Academic Grading Systems
What is a pass-fail grading system anyway? As we saw in the article above, Yale instituted a system with four possible grades and called it pass-fail. Other systems that might "pass" for pass-fail have actually been around for years. Some are described below alongside "regular" grading systems.
S (satisfactory), U (unsatisfactory) (This writer had been graded under this system for the first half of grammar school. One school used an additional grade of I for Improvement over the course of the semester where the averaged out grade would otherwise be U.)
V+ (check plus), V (check), V- (check minus) Often used for daily homework assignments where the teacher verified that homework was submitted but did not analyze it thoroughly for correctness.
Four step: (Yale, began ca. 1967)
H (honors), HP (high pass), P (pass, unqualified), F (fail). Four step: (Conduct/attitude grades accompanying the letter grades at a school this writer attrended)
1 (Outstanding), 2 (Satisfactory), 3 (Needs improvement), 4 (Unsatisfactory) Five step: (Traditional whole steps)
Passing grades: A (4 grade points), B, C, D, Failing grade of F (0 points)
Six step: (Dartmouth, ca. 1960-1972)
Passing grades: A ("ace"), B, CP (C plus, "ploo"), CM (C minus, "mine"), D. Failing grade of E ("flunk")
The C grade was probably split to distinguish a gentlemanly C from a mediocre C.
A citation was a written statement of commendation given by a professor for exceptional work and might accompany an A, or once in awhile, a B.
Professors also occasionally put a notation of flagrant neglect ("flag") in a student's file to accompany a grade of E.
In this system Dartmouth used 5 grade points for the A, 4 points for the B, etc. When the system was changed over to the 12 step (see below) system in 1973, all grade point averages were rescaled to a four point A.
"Grade yourself on a one to ten scale." 11 step:
Same as the preceding except zero has been added. We have used the 11 step scale to grade the daily weather "from a perfect ten down to an abominable zero". 12 or 13 step: (Traditional)
Passing grades: A+, A, A-, B+, B, ... D, D-,. Failing grade: F
Not all schools using this system used the A+ grade.
The Harvard Curve assigns grades as follows, 98-100% is A+, 93-98 is A, 90-92 is A-, 87-89 is B+, 60-62 is D-, and 0-59 is F.
15 step: (Formalized traditional)
Passing grades: A+, A, A-, B+, ... D, D-. Failing grades: E+, E, E-
(In some instances, E+ may be used for "belated improvement" and E- might be used to denote flagrant neglect.)
19 step (Modern contemporary)
99-100 = A+: Outstanding (brownish red) 95-98 = A: Excellent (red) 93-94 = A-: Commendable (orange-red) 91-92 = B+: Very Good (red-orange) 87-90 = B: Good (orange) 85-86 = B-: Above Average (yellow-orange) 83-84 = C+: Average (orange-yellow) 79-82 = C: Fair (yellow) 77-78 = C-: Mediocre (green-yellow) 75-76 = D+: Below Average (yellow-green) 72-74 = D: Poor (green) 70-71 = D-: Very Poor (blue-green) 65-69 = E: Marginal Failure (green-blue) 60-64 = F: Moderate Failure (blue) 50-59 = G: Clear Failure (blue-violet) 40-49 = H: Low Failure (violet) 30-39 = I: Bad Failure (lavender) 20-29 = J: Disastrous Failure (grayish-lavender) <20 = Z: Absolute Failure (light gray) Example submitted by A. Brancato, 12/01.
This example, which is a composite of several schools' grading systems, uses 70 as opposed to Harvard's 60 as the minimum passing percentage grade.
One possible variant would be to use "E+," "E," "E-,", "F+," "F," and "F-" in lieu of "E" through "J" as shown above.
101 step: (Percent)
100, 99, 98, ... 2, 1, 0. Some schools grade this way, without using letter grades.
Evidence of effectiveness
PASS OR FAIL: GRADES HAMPER EDUCATION Walter Weiss
Several weeks ago, the New York Times carried a front page article on Yale [University]'s new "pass-fail" grading system. Or perhaps I should say Yale's new "honors, high pass, pass, fail" grading system. This, of course, does nothing but assign names to the old letter marks and incidentally makes a farce of the entire pass-fail concept.
The ADVANTAGES of adopting a true pass-fail system, not Yale's hybrid variety, are great where The Cambridge School [of Weston, Mass.] is concerned. Imagine the effects of equating A's to C's in the record books. With the pressure for grades removed, the students would be offered greater intellectual freedom. At present, the normal student is forced to ration his time equally between all subjects. If he develops a strong interest in one area, he is often forced to strangle that interest for the good of his work as a whole, one form of mediocrity. In this school, a student with two A's and two D's goes on probation. The pass-fail system gives the student a greater rein in this respect, and by opening the opportunity for concentrated work it would be a major addition to the academic life of the school.
The price to pay for pass-fail is a DISADVANTAGE in the college admissions process. I have talked with nearly a dozen college admissions officers in the past two months and they almost unanimously hold the same opinion on this subject. Admission to college is governed by recommendations and test scores, but most importantly by the student's academic record. It was thought by even the most liberal of schools that in order for a pass-fail system to work in a high school, it should be limited to extra courses, or at least that a grade of high-pass should be added. Otherwise they thought that the student's record would be meaningless.
However there is a way of solving the [college] admissions problem. Because this school is still a college preparatory school, it must ensure its students that if they pass their courses they will get into college. Under the pass-fail system the grade of "pass" would have to be set at the C level or near it. Granted that this would to some small degree counteract the good effects of pass-fail, and granted also that the greater number of failing grades would be hard for the faculty and students to accept, raising the passing level is the only measure that would let the school give its graduates a fair chance to compete for admission to even the less competitive colleges. But it would also make it possible for students to enter the very best colleges depending on strong teacher and school recommendations as well as high [SAT and other standardized] test scores.
The Cambridge School has never been simply a college preparatory school. The most noteworthy aspects of the school set it apart from others in the category. Town Meeting [student government] and its committees, the athletics, music, drama, and art programs do not lead toward college for a majority of the students but they are of value in themselves.
The academic curriculum has also had strong leadings in this direction. There are no teachers at The Cambridge School who would say that their job is to get their students into college. They teach their courses for their inherent value to the student. But high school work is always hampered by the tether of college requirements. A pass-fail grading system could lengthen the tether and allow The Cambridge School to develop into a school rather than a pre-college cram session.
(As a senior at The Cambridge School, Walter Weiss wrote this article in December 1967 for The Griffin's (Gryphon's) Eye (Volume IX, Issue V, pp. 1-2), the school newspaper. Bracketed words were added in May 1999 by the web page editor who was a junior at The Cambridge School at that time.)
Critics and their rationale
I understand the philosophy behind not assigning grades. Most of what I am hearing is that grades are bad for the student that does not excel or meet standards. But, what about the student that does excel. If there are no grades assigned, what motivates the student, that would excel, to excel, especially if simply meeting standards would give the same result. I think that grades are a major motivation for students. To carry on this critique, a student's motivation is critical to the amount and quality of work being presented by a student and therefore, grades should be assigned. After asking a college professor of mine about the possibility of taking his class pass/fail because I was over the amount of history classes I needed for my major, he sat me down and told me the exact same thing. "Why would I want a student that isn't going to get much out of this class because the effort will be lacking, when I have a waiting list of students trying to get into this class?" The grading system of pass/fail may have different meanings depending upon the grade level, but it certainly carries itself into the college career as well, with professors wanting students that will be motivated in their classrooms.
To shift gears a little, but to stress the same point, let's discuss teacher salaries. As we all know, at least at every school that I know of, teacher salaries are based on years experience and education level. Other than the pure satisfaction of knowing that you are doing the best possible job that you can, there is no incentive to be an incredible teacher. There is no incentive to go above and beyond, to keep up with technology, to create new, exciting lessons for your classes. If I do all of those things, I still make the same salary as the teacher down the hall that does the same boring lessons year after year. We can all name the teacher that I just mentioned. Would competition, salary based on results, increase that teacher's motivation - absolutely. Does competition, in the form of grades, increase students motivation to do well - I think it does. RGrunloh
Alternative explanations due to diversity considerations
Pass/Fail grading systems are used from elementary schools through medical school. ESL students are often given P/F grades. Very often P/F grades are used in special education situations.
Pass/Fail grades are given at Harvard Medical school because it is believed that students become more concerned about learning and less concerned about where they will rank in their class due to a conventional grading system.
Signed "life experiences"' testimonies and stories
Many students in my band program take band for Pass/Fail credit because they are in all Honors/AP courses and the weighting of these grades is different then a regular course such as a music class. For example, an 'A' in band will actually lower the GPA of an all Honors tract student. This past year a number of freshmen put together an Honors credit system for band so that students would be able to get a letter grade on their transcripts. It has been presented to the Administration and has my full backing. Students cannot take Pass/Fail without instructor approval. -J. Daeschler
I think a pass-fail system could be as effective in student evaluation as a grading system. As a teacher you define the standards, students complete various tasks and after a given time they will get evaluated from the teacher if they can perform the task or not. If they pass they get a new task and if they fail they get some more advice to practice the old one. Every student learns at different speeds and I think more effective learning can be achieved with the pass/fail method. A bad grade does not mean a student has the motivation to relearn the missed material. With the pass/fail method he has the obligation to learn it until he/she passes. Felix Autenrieth
The school district in which I am employed has student workers. These are seniors who come into the classroom and do various office procedures for the teacher, staff or whomever they have been assigned. The student receives a portion of a credit for the work. The grading is pass/fail. In this situation there is too much variance. I have had students that are self guided, wonderful help. Then, I have had students that need to have their hand held through every project. The project may be completed, and maybe in a fine fashion. It just doesn't seem appropriate to give both students passing grades, when the one had gone above and beyond the call of duty. My adjustment to this is to give a thank you gift to students that have been a valuable asset to the library at the end of the school year. I have volunteered to write letters of recommendation for these students. I feel that they should be accommodated for the extra good job that was given. M. Youngblood
I also believe that a pass-fail system can be quite effective in teaching. Like Felix said, it is about the teacher still setting guidelines and a course outline but the student plays a more active role in their own progress and learning. Peter Senge, the developer of the Systems Thinking idea (see WikEd entry) believed that this holistic approach to total learning was more effective than students cramming for one test at a time and feeling the pressure of trying to fit into standardized tests and learning approaches. Regular progress meetings would be necessary to make sure students are getting too far behind but this approach seems to have real potential. April Spisak
I teach a 6-week Study Skills course to 5th and 6th grader students at my school, and I can't imagine using any other system than Pass/Fail. I think this class is a perfect situation for children to learn strategies and techniques that will help them with skills needed for success in school without putting the pressure of getting a grade. I like to tell the students that this is a class that doesn't aim to add more to their list of things to do at school but helps them to manage what they already have to do. I have not seen that the use of a Pass/Fail grade diminished their motivation to learn in this class at all. - E. Remington
As a student, I really do not like having a pass/fail system of grading, especially when the course requires a lot of work. As a hardworking student, it is discouraging to work to my potential and have someone do the bare minimum and technically receive the same acknowledgement with "pass." I can see how it might work well with borderline failing students, but I think it defintely has a downside for those students who are motivated to do well. - A. Barkauski
I think that if implemented correctly, a pass-fail system could be beneficial to school climate. Often, "borderline" students may opt to not take a difficult course, because of the fear of failure or a grade lower than an A. If the purpose of a letter grade system is a means to get accepted into college or get a first job, then it is of little value. Is it really important that a student be marked "well-above average, above average, or average" in order to go to college? It might also be damaging to a student who tries very hard and does not get an A. As long as a teacher sets up a system of instruction that requires students to be actively engaged in learning, then I see no reason to have the ABCDF grading scale. Those students who do not try or participate would not pass. I think that it would be best to have a classroom where students are not pitted against each other fighting for the top grade, but instead, the whole class strives towards excellence together. --Mindy Waters
As a high school math teacher, my experience with Pass/Fail grading hasn't been good. I have had 7 students in the last 6 years take AP Calculus or Pre Calculus / Trig Honors with a Pass/Fail option. Of those 7 students, 4 have failed. These are honors students, the best of the best in our high school and yet 57% of them failed the class. I have talked with each of them and every student admitted that because they only needed to get 64% to pass, they put in far less effort than they would have if they had taken the class with the regular grading scale. I have talked about 6 students out of this option because of my experience with the failures. -- Brad Frey, Johnsburg High School
Pass/Fail Grading is fine in College, but not in the High School or Junior High. I know in College I had a lot of friends who took classes Pass/Fail and they did just enough work to get by. Do we want to teach High School students to only work hard enough to "just get by”? I think it is a bad precedence to set. – Dale Donner
Dale, I too think Pass/Fail grading is a terrible thing to be brought into a high school or junior high setting. In many cases, it can create students who are not willing to do the work that is needed to be successful in a normal setting. I think that this can lead to many students in this setting to not be used to the real world when they get there. Some people may say that this is perfect for a student who works really hard but just isn't really good enough to get A's and B's which may be true. But I also think that you will have too many students using this as a means to get through a class easier than the normal way. -Nick Hartz
There is a music teacher in my middle school that uses Pass/Fail. Everybody passes, which defeats the purpose of pass/fail. Additionally, this teacher brings down the expectations of the music curriculum and other teachers in the building see the fine arts as a joke. Other music educators are more expectant of their students and give "A", "B", and "C". However, the music faculty is not allowed to give anything lower than a "C". Students that participate in the Pass/Fail course and one other ensemble seem to have lower expectations in their work and performances. It is unfortunate that the department can not agree upon a consistent grading scale and expectations. M. Rice
I have found that students who take a course as pass/fail do so because they do not want to "mess up" their GPA. They find a course that they are not sure they will get an A in and instead of giving it their best shot and maybe come out with a B, they just take it as pass/fail so they maintain their solid 4.0! If it were up to me, I would do away with this system, but I can understand why some institutions of higher education choose to use it. I have taught for an institution who used the system for their developmental classes, those below 100 level. I thought this was fine since those courses do not count towards a degree.--M. Smith
I am a curriculum developer for the Marine Corps and we are beginning to use this extensively in our leadership academies. I currently in the process of rewriting our course for Corporals (E-4). For our purposes pass/fail or as we call it mastery/non-mastery is the best way to grade most of our performance evaluations (PE).
In the corporals course we teach Marines how to wield swords and guidons. The students are given hours of instruction and time to practice. Then at a prescribed date and time they are tested on their abilities. If they do a movement incorrectly during the PE they are given remediation and two more attempts to master the movement. The reason that we developed the rubric this way is because we believe it is more important for the student to master the PE or class than it is to get an 80% or letter grade. –David Troyer
My viewpoint is in contrast to everyone else, it seems. In high school, I took PreCalculus Pass/Fail. I was struggling a lot with the topic and I knew that getting a "C" or "D" would have affected my grade point average in a negative way. I don't regret it. I have not used Calculus of PreCalc since, and I think it was well worth it not having to deal with the stress of a class that I hated. I also took band pass/fail all four years of high school. I was an honors student who took 6 AP courses throughout the course of my high school career. Everything else was honors, except for band. I do not think that taking band and PreCalc Pass/Fail hurt me in a negative way. It did not make me lazy, it did not encourage me to slack off, and it did not hurt my future success. I took a course Pass/Fail in college due to the fact that it was beyond the drop deadline and the course was completely irrelevant to my major. I thought that the grading practices were unfair, the professor was incompetent, and the course in general was a waste of time so I took the class Pass/Fail to preserve my GPA. I am glad that I did this as well. If I could re-do it, I would not have taken the course at all, but Pass/Fail was a useful way for me to keep the credit hours without hurting my GPA. Do I think that students can abuse the system? Yes, of course. However, not every instance of Pass/Fail is detrimental. A. Peso
With the standards grading system: 90%+ A, 80%-90% B, 70%-80%, C, 60%-70% D, below 60% F, a student can have an understanding of the material which is not reflected in the grading system. If a student turns in one assignment but then misses the next assignment of the same weight their grade would become a 50%, failing, not a C for halfway between failing and mastering the content. As a result, our schools is looking to alter the traditional grade level break-down. In addition, with the current break down a student can become mathematically ineligible to pass the course prior to their cutoff for learning, the end of the semester. This sends the message to the student it is no longer important to contribute to the classroom. There is a 60% gap to cover to come away from failing, however each differential for the other grade jumps is only 10%. The argument has been made that this amount of a jump is to vast for students and should be decreased. -M. Pule
I think it is interesting that some medical schools use the pass/fail option. Like many above me have mentioned, student effort may diminish if the course is pass/fail because all they have to do is pass. Many students won't go above and beyond and strive to be the best or get the best grade. While I fully believe med school is stressful and they want to keep stress at bay as much as possible for those students, I don't think I agree with this. If a med student knows he can learn 65% of the chapter and pass, do I want him operating on my parents, my husband, or myself? What about the other 35% of information he didn't bother to learn because he didn't need it to pass? I think pass/fail takes away a lot of the motivation in courses. - S. Halm
http://www.brighthub.com/education/k-12/articles/21484.aspx This site examines some of the postive outcomes of a pass/fail grading system. -B. Johnson