The new school year approacheth! This time around my Junior Seminar class goes from a letter-graded course to pass/fail. In past years we found that some of our students who tend to get Cs and Ds were failing their seminar class (at my school, this is the one that is meant to give extra support and move students up to grade level in reading). Not good. Students (especially English language learners of which we have many) found this frustrating. Something needed to change.
The idea behind the switch to pass/fail is to allow for more fluid grading.
Using grading as a barrier to entry is an exclusionary act. It keeps out students who perform differently than (notice that I did not type "below") an arbitrarily determined standard. This does not fit my goals for the class.
Alternatively we can think of grading as a communicative act, a way of telling a student whether or not they used an activity to demonstrate some predetermined form of progress. This way, students get to use a grade to determine where they are improving and where they can focus future efforts. They set their own standard as a byproduct of past performance and can then use this self-determined standard to gage improvement.
Letter grades have been swiped by the barrier to entry crowd. Student grades become GPAs which are used to keep them out of prestigious institutions. They denote some form of standard that can be assumed to be constant across schools. Again, this does not work for me. Progress looks different from student to student. A seventeen-year-old who comes to me from a family that has surrounded her with books and a private school education may not have to work very hard to earn an A. No effort means no improvement. By giving her an A I am not encouraging her education. A student who recently came to the US from a farm in the Dominican Republic with limited English and an inconsistant education may struggle heroically and still get an F. Heroic struggle means improvement. By giving her an F I am not encouraging her education. However, if I have a fluid pass/fail system I can mark the first student's paper with a "fail" and ask her to try again, this time challenging herself in ways that she and I can determine ahead of time, and mark the second student's paper with a "pass" and highlight what progress she has made since her last attempt and what efforts she can make the next time around. This encourages education.
If I really want inquisitive students who will work from intrinsic motivation to learn new, exciting things about the world, then the pass/fail system works better for my class.
The added bonus here is the situation in which students may want to contest their grade. Letter grades are generally based on a rubric. If a student comes to me with a concern about a letter grade all I do is point at the rubric and say, "You didn't do these things, so I didn't give you these points, so you got this grade." That's not exactly communication. All I did was point to something that the student could have read on his own. If the same student comes to me with a concern about a pass/fail grade then I have to actually defend my grading decision. The only evidence that I can reasonably use is past performance vs. current performance. The student can counter my evidence, and we can have an actual conversation about the assignment. He might prove me wrong. I might be able to use the situation to further highlight areas where the student can improve and doubly encourage that improvement. All kinds of messy situations could occur. It's gonna be a good year.