Why Classical Needs Pass/Fail

By Nick Griffin

May 5, 2020

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As the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in mid March, many students were cautiously optimistic. Spring break had come early, and it seemed we would be able to relax at home until the crisis eventually passed and daily life returned to normal.

That didn’t happen.

This pandemic has evolved to warrant much more than just a two week long vacation. We are now entering our second month of distance learning, and we have a month and a half left to go. Students are used to logging onto Zoom, checking Google Classroom, and doing their work in the comfort of their own homes. Some students, that is.

For students without high-speed internet, reliable technology, or stable home lives, distance learning can be burdensome. Chromebooks distributed by the School Department have had issues with connectivity and speed, making timed assignments difficult to complete. Students may also be feeling the effects of the tanking economy, which has caused unprecedented layoffs with little support from the government. Access to food, electricity, and even a quiet space to do work are all challenges that Providence Schools needs to take into account when considering options to make our grading system more equitable.

The effects of this gross injustice are wide reaching. Students’ grades are suffering due to circumstances outside of their control. Unequal access to technology and economic insecurity at home can make learning not only difficult, but almost impossible. This is unfair, and PPSD needs to act quickly to close the digital and economic divide.

One proposal currently on the table is implementing an optional pass/fail grading system for the fourth quarter. With pass/fail, students without reliable internet and devices, or who experience additional burdens due to the pandemic could simply choose to get a “pass” instead of a letter grade. This pass would be contingent on a student getting a “passing” grade in the class.

This new rule could be game-changing for some students. Colleges consider grades heavily during the admission process and academic scholarship awards. Many students have been working hard all year to maintain good grades, and Fs in the 4th quarter could destroy their GPA and class rank. The pass/fail option would help mitigate that. For those who choose to choose to opt-in to pass/fail, GPA would most likely be calculated based on the first three quarters of the year.

PPSD would not be the first school district to do this. School districts from New York City to San Francisco have switched to pass/fail systems in an effort to ease pressure on students and to ensure that no one’s college success is contingent on unfair letter grades. Even colleges like Brown have adopted optional pass/fail. Providence Public Schools needs to do the same so that not just the privileged, but everyone, has a chance at going to college.

Not only is pass/fail good for students, it’s popular. In a survey done on our Instagram page, 84% of respondents favored a pass/fail system, be it optional or mandatory.

There has been some opposition to pass/fail. On our Instagram poll, 16% voted that their preference was to keep letter grades instead of switching to either optional or mandatory pass/fail. This is understandable: for those with internet access, fast technology, and relative economic stability, this quarter could be one of the best quarters (grade-wise) in their high school careers. Students don’t want hard work undervalued because of the pandemic. However, an optional system would give students the choice to keep themselves on the letter grading system. The issue with retaining letter grades for everyone remains: many are struggling to keep up.

Providence Public Schools needs to offer a pass/fail grading option. Not only is optional pass/fail popular, it can level the playing field for hundreds of students at Classical. The inequalities that pass/fail would address are becoming more apparent by the day, and we need to do something about it.

The way we learn has changed. Why can’t our grading system?

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