The Smoke Signal, MSJ's Official Newspaper


Letter Grades or Pass/Fail?

by Staff Writers Sakshi Umrotkar & Alina Zeng

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused school districts nationwide to adopt unique teaching methods, from virtual lectures on video conferencing apps to online assignments and activities, in an effort to continue teaching remotely throughout the school year. 

Although districts and school faculty are tirelessly working to ensure that school closures do not impact students’ performance and learning abilities, semester grades are a source of looming concern for many students. High school students across the nation who would ordinarily be in their fourth quarter of the school year have argued to keep the current letter grade system, or to transition to a Pass/Fail system.


As high schools in the US adjust to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, students and parents are questioning the validity of the conventional letter grading system in remote learning. However, letter grades are necessary in order to provide students with specific insight into their performance in classes, allowing them to assess their understanding of course material, and giving them an incentive to work harder to meet academic benchmarks.

Since students will rely solely on remote learning for the rest of the school year, it is important that administration and faculty members consider the importance of letter grades in maintaining students’ motivation before deciding on an appropriate system. Precise letter grades incentivize students to consistently push themselves to achieve a higher letter grade rather than to settle for a passing grade. An Oregon State University professor who taught a Pass/Fail class noted that two-thirds of his students came to class unprepared, and just over half submitted their required work on time. He passed all of them but said it was “an insult to the conscientious student.” This shows how alternative grading systems, such as Pass/Fail, would only lower the bar for academic performance and breed unmotivated students who rely on the system’s rudimentary nature to pass their classes.

Under the Pass/Fail system, students might automatically assume that receiving a Pass indicates success in the class despite their bare minimum performance. Such misconceptions can lead to students not challenging themselves to reach their academic goals. Tangible letter grades, however, reward students for going above and beyond, and are able to motivate students for gaining a full understanding of the curriculum.

Many teachers have adjusted their individual lesson plans to preserve the spirit of learning while resisting cheating. Conventional testing is pointless without a controlled classroom environment that helps students concentrate; since students have access to an abundance of materials at home, it is possible for them to cheat or get easily sidetracked by household activity. As a result, teachers have been assigning more projects and assignments that support remote learning, such as virtual labs and essays. Furthermore, many teachers have transitioned to open book tests, circumventing the problem of cheating by instead creating test questions that require more critical thinking rather than factual memorization. Open book tests encourage students to think for themselves, curbing their reliance on questions with quick, definitive answers that can be easily copied. These extra resources help students who may have testing environments that they are not accustomed to.

Though the curriculum and grading system used during the past quarters are less effective remotely, teachers should adapt their own curriculum, teaching styles, and weighting systems to help students receive grades that accurately reflect the effort they put into learning. Making such modifications to the letter grading system will counteract the shortcomings of online classes, giving students an education that equals the conventional curriculum.


Due to school closures, students across the country face the challenge of transitioning to remote learning — something both students and faculty are not accustomed to. Due to the limitations of online learning, students will not be able to receive the same quality of assistance from teachers, and they can no longer learn in a classroom environment. Hence, the letter grading system, which was not created to accommodate for online learning spaces, is an unreliable measure of students’ academic performance during this time.

The grading system that most students are advocating for as a replacement to letter grades is the Pass/Fail system. School districts such as the Palo Alto Unified School District have already adopted a variant of the Pass/Fail system — the Credit/No Credit (CR/N) system, wherein students who receive the equivalent of an A, B, or C in a class receive Credit while anything lower counts as No Credit. Typically, CR/N classes do not impact college students’ GPAs and only provide them with credit to fulfill graduation requirements. In a statement of assurance to current high schoolers, University of California schools, California State Universities, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, and other universities such as Harvard University have agreed that future applicants who receive a Pass/Credit for classes taken in the second semester of the 2019-20 school year will not be impacted, ensuring that a switch to the Pass/Fail system will not harm students’ college admissions.

This new system is necessary, as the physical distance produced by online learning has caused several problems. Rather than being able to answer students’ questions in person during class time, teachers are now responsible for disseminating information individually to students through email in a timely manner. Additionally, discussion-based classes like Foreign Language and English suffer especially. Although video conferencing apps allow teachers to hold discussions and lectures with their students, problems such as network lag deter meaningful discussions. Students cannot be expected to keep up with letter grades without the proper collaboration and immediate feedback that they are used to.

Without the competitive letter grade system, students are also more inclined to prioritize their mental health rather than worry about improving their grades. The Pass/Fail system’s leniency would allow students to cope with this situation without as much academic stress. The constant bombardment of COVID-19 updates can cause stress levels to rise rapidly, and continuing with the use of letter grades would only cause students to become even more overwhelmed.

Although the Pass/Fail system would give students more room for error, students are still encouraged to keep up with their schoolwork in order to prepare for next year’s courses. The various courses that high schoolers are currently enrolled in serve as prerequisites to the classes they will be taking in the 2020-21 school year, giving them incentive to solidify their knowledge despite the Pass/Fail system’s leniency. This system gives students who may be feeling overly anxious or overwhelmed by the situation to have the opportunity to focus on their mental wellbeing.

In such a time of crisis, the Pass/Fail system provides enough leniency for students to adjust to school closures without too much academic pressure, but also enforces a clear standard for how students are expected to perform.

Graphic by Opinion Editor Josephine Chew

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