distance learning, grading reform

Navigating to a Pass/Fail Grading System

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki

Watch or listen to this post as a video podcast: https://youtu.be/F2qtI2TQZ7A

Many school districts have opted to move to a pass/fail or credit/no credit grading system for the second semester of the current school year. This has been a popular move primarily because of difficulties in providing students with the same quality and equitable educational experience through distance learning that they experienced before school closures. And if education is less effective during school closures, then employing a traditional A-F grading system would likely produce inaccurate and inequitable grades.

But once districts take the significant step of officially changing their reporting system, the real work of transitioning to the new system begins.

Collective Decision Making

If the new grading system is to produce grades with real meaning, decisions should be made collectively by a team composed of multiple school stakeholders. Without multiple perspectives, including those of students, teachers, parents, and administrators, the new system is unlikely to fulfill the needs of the primary parties involved in the process. Leaving out teachers, in particular, may lead to low teacher buy-in to the new system and teacher tendencies to use the system to meet their own perceived needs. Leaving students and parents out of the process may make it more challenging to communicate the new grading system to them and less likely for them to embrace the changes.

Key Decisions

Once a team is formed, some important decisions must be made in order to guide teachers in creating meaningful grades.

The Incomplete Option

Before moving ahead with the pass/fail or credit/no credit system, I suggest strongly considering an incomplete option in place of the fail or no credit option. There are some significant problems with assigning a student a fail or no credit in distance learning. One is that assigning a finite fail or no credit sends the message that the opportunity for learning has ended and the student has missed out on this opportunity. Considering the fact that students from lower income households are at a significant disadvantage when learning from home, this is clearly an educational equity issue.

Another related problem is the great number of very understandable reasons for a student to be unable to learn priority standards from home. If our true intent is to teach with grace and understanding during this trying time, as many rightfully say it is, then assigning a fail or no credit may violate these principles.

Here are just a handful of potential reasons that a student may be unable to adequately learn during school closures: personal or family sickness, high stress levels, work, inconsistent or no access to a computer or device, inconsistent or no access to the internet, difficulties learning online, challenges with technology, inadequate instruction, various disturbances at home, learning disabilities, various special needs, difficulty sleeping, caring for siblings, a lack of food, a lack of shelter . . . The list could go on, but clearly, we must give all students the benefit of the doubt.


After deciding on the incomplete option, the team should start by clearly defining the purpose of the new system and explaining how long the system is intended to remain in place.

For many schools, the purpose of the new grading system will likely be to communicate whether or not student learning of prioritized standards reaches a minimum level of academic performance. The timeline is likely to last for the entirety of school closures.

Next, the intended meaning of pass and fail or credit and no credit needs to be defined to provide teachers with a guide to accurately assigning these performance levels. If schools choose the incomplete option, this too must be defined.

A definition of the pass or credit level should likely indicate that a student’s learning is exceeding proficiency, at proficiency, or approaching proficiency. In traditional grading systems, these performance levels are often translated as A, B, and C. However, I do not recommend communicating this type of translation to teachers and students because too often, letter grades mean many different things to different teachers. Like translating languages, lots of meaning can be lost in attempting to translate from the traditional grading system to the new system.

Conversely, students who display a beginning level of learning, no learning, or no evidence of learning would fall into the fail or no credit level. In traditional grading systems, these performance levels are often translated as D or F.

A definition of the incomplete level could mean the same as the fail or no credit level (the student displays a beginning level of learning, no learning, or no evidence of learning), or it could simply mean that a student has not yet displayed learning that is at least approaching proficiency. The latter definition can help to support a growth mindset in students and teachers and support policies that allow students to continue to learn and show evidence of their learning of the semester priority standards long after the semester has concluded.

Semester Grade Calculations

One of the most challenging parts of navigating this new grading system may be in calculating semester grades, as it requires combining the traditional A-F system with the new system.

To do so, teachers should consider the learning targets/standards that they are reporting on for the semester. I recommend that teachers only report on those targets/standards that they taught before school closures. Doing so will help to reduce the effects of inequitable implications of school closures on grades.

Then, teachers can consider the grades and evidence of learning from before school closures along with the evidence of learning since closures to assign the appropriate category at the end of the semester.

Final Thoughts

Schools have important decisions to make when navigating to a pass/fail (or similar) grading system. Students, parents, and teachers are truly relying on them to make prudent decisions, as these decisions have many important implications for students’ lives. In the face of the politics, emotions, and confusion that can complicate the decision making process, they should let equity, grace, and student learning be their guide.

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