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Pass/Fail or No Grades During Online Pandemic Teaching? A gift.

March Blog Banner 1200 by 628X (5)Pass/Fail or No Grades During Online Pandemic Teaching? A gift.

My colleagues and I got the word from our principal recently that we are to use only pass/fail grades while we are teaching online during our school’s shut down for the pandemic. Other schools have asked teachers to assign work but not grade any of it.

Both of these shifts in grading are true gifts both to students and teachers.

What we don’t have to do under the pass/fail or no-grades system is evaluate students’ work to determine levels of achievement, often via complex rubrics or point systems. When we do use complex rubrics or point systems, we spend a lot of time writing comments to justify the points taken off or why we chose certain scores on the rubric. We do this because the systems we set up to calculate grades become the center of our interactions with students.

A pass/fail or no-grades system removes the score/points/evaluation central focus. And we get to decide what to put there at the center instead. This is an awesome opportunity to focus on simply doing the work of reading and writing and seeing the learning that results rather than on evaluating it constantly.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some anxieties wrapped up into a shift away from letter grades to pass/fail or no grades. One key worry is that students will not take the work as seriously if they know they only have to do it well enough to earn a “pass” or that there will be no grades at stake at all.

Within a pass/fail system, if you and your students are thinking in terms of an A-F scale where D work means “pass,” then yes, it seems like students might see the move to pass/fail as an invitation to do the bare minimum.

Let’s pause for a moment. Our world is unsettled, confusing, and anxiety-ridden right now. I will consider it a win if my students are able to do work, period. I won’t expect it to be the level they might be able to produce in our usual classroom setting or if there weren’t a global pandemic breeding difficult uncertainty for all of us. Some kindness with our grading is warranted here—we have no idea how students’ day-to-day realities have changed and shifted. Making it okay for them not to perform at their usual capacity is really okay. I know I won’t be able to teach to my full potential over the next several weeks either.

But you can be clear about what work constitutes “pass” rather than just leaving it as an assumed “D” in your students’ minds. I’m a fan of clear checklists that define what the work of a particular task looks like, and we could certainly put in another “grade” between pass and fail—”not yet,” or “keep working,” or “almost there” or whatever you want to call it. This intermediate step between “pass” and “fail” means that a student has done some work but you want them to keep working, that there’s more learning you want them to do or skills you want them to show before you consider the task complete. Clarifying this expectation with a short, clear checklist could help your students rethink what it means to “pass” on a given task.

A similar tool is the single point rubric (as explained in the linked blog post, including credit to the person who first originated the term), where instead of spelling out all the different levels of achievement for each category on the rubric, you just spell out one level. In a pass/fail system, you would describe the level of achievement you expect your students to hit in order to consider the task complete enough for it to earn credit. It can certainly be higher than what would earn a “pass” in an A-F system, but remember the extra grace and kindness we all need right now. Maybe don’t make it what it would need to be for an A (or even a B?) in that A-F system.

An invitation to move from typical letter grading to pass/fail grading is an invitation to rethink grading. What would it take minimally for your students to earn credit for the work you ask of them? What’s good enough to consider the work and learning complete? If you ask them to keep working, why? What is it that they need to accomplish on a task? And what, then, results in a “fail”?

And if you’re lucky enough to have been asked to assign no grades at all, then ignore everything I said in the last few paragraphs. You and your students can simply focus on doing meaningful work together without the specter of any kind of grade hanging over you. You are free to imagine the most engaging tasks you can for your students without having to think about how you’ll grade them. It will take a bit of a leap of faith to trust that students will want to do the work. But they do. Really. They want to read and write in ways that matter to them. Give them choices. Ask them what they want to work on. You have so much space now that you don’t have to worry about grades at all.

Of course in any classroom setting, it’s easy to take it personally when students don’t choose to do the work we invite them to do. We have to be so careful, especially now, not to do that. These are not typical times; this is not school as usual. If students are not doing the work whether it’s graded or not, there may be more going on in their lives that is taking precedent, and what we—teachers and and the schools and districts we work in—need to do is reach out and figure out how to support those students and their families.

This is where I should probably tell you that I haven’t used points or traditional grading in my classroom for about six years now. I have found that once my students trust that I have really, truly stepped out of the grade game as they know it (and if I am able to serve up the most meaningful work I can), they’ll do the work just because they want to learn. Not all of them, of course, but I can honestly say that more of my students choose to work authentically now than did when I was still ensconced in traditional grading. It was a challenging and unsettling shift for me to make, but my students’ response has been completely worth it. They and I are now free to focus on what matters so much more than point collecting: learning and growth as readers and writers.


Sarah M. Zerwin is the author of the newly released Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading where she describes in detail how she moved away from point-based grading years ago.


Topics: Point-Less, Sarah Zerwin, Distance Learning, Covid_19

Date Published: 03/27/20

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