Pass-fail grading is controversial

Several colleges and universities have instituted pass-fail grading during the coronavirus pandemic (“A lot to worry about besides school grades,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. Several colleges and universities have instituted pass-fail grading during the coronavirus p 29).  It’s unclear whether the new system will remain in place when classes eventually resume.

Whatever happens, however, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at pass-fail.  UC Santa Cruz decided to eliminate pass-fail grading decades ago because graduate schools complained that it did not allow them to rank students.  Moreover, pass-fail tends to be pass-pass regardless of the work done by students. I think that a little competition among students motivates most of them to study harder and learn more.  I’m not talking now about cutthroat competition, which I believe is counterproductive.

Supporters of pass-fail grading say that students are already under enough pressure without adding to it.  They have a point. But employers still want to be able to sort out applicants for jobs, and they tend to look at traditional grades as the best way to do so. As a result, what seems a good idea at the moment may shortchange students later on.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Pass-fail grading is controversial”

  1. This debate has been around for decades — they were arguing the issue during my first year at Harvard Law in 1970.

    Society constantly awards scarce goods — like acceptances to college, grad school, and jobs — to some and denies them to others. Seems that using grades as a factor for making the awards is on balance good for society. Better than using total randomness or less rational factors such as friendship or ethnic identity.

    One caveat from my undergrad days — it might be productive for an educational institution (high school, college, grad/professional school) to allow students to take a very limited number of courses pass/fail. Perhaps one/year. This would enable students who were concerned re their overall GPA to take a flier on a course they probably would not do well in but that they found intriguing. For example, the math major who was tempted to take a French Lit course or the French Lit major who was tempted to take a math course. Colleges, grad schools, employers, etc. would still have ample grades to use in evaluating the student, but the student would have had the opportunity to take the risky course.


  2. Labor Lawyer: That’s a good suggestion because it would encourage students to take a course without worrying about the grade. But such courses would not be weighed as heavily by grad schools and employers.


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