A dissent on pass/fail grading in remote learning

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By Douglas Reeves

Many schools in the United States and around the world are dealing with the unprecedented challenges of online learning. As a recent Educational Leadership article on grading practices by Joe Feldman noted, the pandemic and consequent school closures have adversely affected many students, with particular challenges for students who are economically disadvantaged. Feldman also provides thoughtful and practical ideas on providing effective feedback to students and promoting academic integrity in this context.

I absolutely agree with grading-reform recommendations such as abandoning the zero to 100 scale, the grading of homework, and the use of the average, all toxic grading practices that I have previously addressed in the pages of Educational Leadership. Feldman’s advice in this piece to exclusively use pass/fail grading also makes sense for K-8 students, for whom feedback is far more important than letter grades. However, I part ways with Feldman on extending the pass/fail recommendation to high schools. When it comes to high school grades, while the pass/fail option may be enticing, it is ill-advised. There are three reasons for this: equity, resources, and engagement.

Equity

There are two competing narratives about how to achieve equity in an environment that is inherently inequitable. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were vast disparities in family access to educational resources, parental support, technology, food, health care, housing, and a variety of other resources associated with academic success.  Few people suggested that because those disparities existed, we should deny students the opportunity to be rewarded for hard work and perseverance and to seek to distinguish themselves in the pursuit of of scholarships and college admissions.

Yet one current equity narrative (represented in Feldman’s piece) is based on the presumption that until access to technology and educational support is uniformly available, all students should receive the same passing grade, regardless of their individual performance. Such a policy may prevent students who have achieved academic distinction from competing successfully for scarce scholarships and college admissions. In a pass/fail system, those making decisions about allocating scholarships and college admissions are unable to tell the difference between students who earn A’s and D’s, as they are all simply marked as passing. The students hurt worst in this scenario are those for whom academic distinction is the only way out of poverty. By logic of this narrative, schools should never have awarded grades in the past and should not in the future.  

The second equity narrative is that we have an obligation as educators and as a society to pursue equitable access. That requires investments of time and energy in developing the potential of every student, encouraging them in the face of crisis, and rewarding the emotional and academic traits of perseverance and resilience. In my view, the first narrative is one of fatalistic despair; the second narrative is the one that a response to the current crisis demands. 

Resources

Imagine that you are a high school junior or senior. You have worked hard to pursue your dreams, perhaps of college or technical school, but your family lacks the resources for you to pay for tuition, books, and other costs associated with post-secondary education.  Your only hope is a scholarship, and with the stock market crash in recent months, the resources that colleges have for scholarships have been significantly diminished. Thus many economically disadvantaged students are competing for limited scholarship dollars, and you need to distinguish yourself based on your hard work and diligence.

The pass/fail system makes that impossible, because the transcript will not differentiate between a student who has earned an A and one who has earned a D-minus. I share Feldman’s concern that disadvantaged students are adversely affected by lack of access to technology. But the answer is not a policy of equal disadvantage for all, but rather the absolute commitment to deliver instructional materials to all students, not only through online learning, but through public television, one-to-one phone calls, and delivery of books, supplies, and other instructional materials by mail. My organization works with a high-poverty school in the Midwest with 440 students, and as of this week, only 14 students have not submitted assignments and engaged in learning in one of several different methods of instruction.  It’s not perfect, but in this environment, we dare not let the ideal become the enemy of progress.

Of course, no student should be harmed for lack of access to technology and connectivity. Therefore, if the latest and best evidence teachers have is student work in February, that’s what should be used to assess the student’s performance—and grade. If the latest and best evidence is from April and May, then teachers should have the discretion to use that. Students can win either way, regardless of their access to technology.  

Engagement

Grades are surely not the only motivator of students. As Feldman correctly notes, students can be motivated by feedback, learning, and personal relationships with teachers. This is not an “either/or” proposition. We must provide feedback, including feedback without a grade, as well nurture personal relationships with students—not just through sophisticated online learning platforms with limited availability, but also through one-to-one conversations using ancient but nevertheless effective phone calls. That commitment, however, does not eliminate the potential for encouraging students to take rigorous coursework, engage in learning challenges, and receive credit for the hard work that they do. In this connection, specific grades are not insignificant; they can be meaningful goalposts for students.   

We can all find common ground in the commitment to equity. This must be a lifetime commitment for educators and for our nation. But we must simultaneously pursue excellence and opportunity for all students, and that does not happen with homogenized grading practices in which excellence is sacrificed in pursuit of equity.  In my most recent book, Achieving Equity and Excellence (Solution Tree, 2020), I make the case, supported by scores of other researchers as well as my own field research, that we can and must pursue both equity and excellence.  Schools have done it in the past and are continuing to do it in the midst of this crisis.  Let us demand appropriate grading reform: stop grading homework, stop using the average, and use only the latest and best evidence to determine a final grade for the spring of 2020.  But let us resist the siren song of pass/fail grades for high school students. This policy not only fails to provide equity, it undermines it. 


About the author

Douglas Reeves (Douglas.Reeves@CreativeLeadership.net) is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership. He leads the nonprofit Equity and Excellence Institute.

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