A pass-fail grading system changes the way that students can achieve credit for a class. Instead of receiving a letter-based grade, they will either receive a passing grade or a failing grade, allowing them to push forward toward a degree without worrying about the precision of their GPA. As long as the student completes work above what defines a failing grade in the class earns credit for it.
This lack of precision provides numerous benefits for students because there is no longer the pressure to achieve a specific outcome. It can also be disadvantageous to some because their work far exceeds the threshold of failure, but they will gain no credit for it. Their credit for taking the class is the same as someone who barely exceeds the threshold.
Most of the classes which are available in this system occur after earning a GED or high school diploma, but there are some K-12 institutions which are looking at the pros and cons of the pass-fail grading system today. It might provide fairness in grading and encourage more studies, but this system might hold some students back from their full potential as well.
List of the Pros of the Pass Fail Grading System
1. This grading system places less stress on the student.
Students who take classes in the traditional grading system often have tremendous levels of stress they endure to do well on assignments and tests. Specific elements of the curriculum carry a lot of weight, with a final exam sometimes representing 30% or more of the final grade. If you do well throughout the entire class and then fail at the wrong moment, the letter-based result the teacher or professor provides may not be representative of a student’s knowledge or ability.
The pass-fail grading system eliminates this issue almost entirely. Students no longer need to worry about their grade-point average with this system. There is less pressure and perceived stress because one moment of failure won’t define their grade.
2. It improves the mood of the students in the classroom.
When there is less stress in the classroom because of the pass-fail grading system, then there is an improved mood in the student body. Instead of focusing on an upcoming exam or paper, everyone can spend more time with the materials taught in the class. Even though many of the final requirements stay the same since you must meet a minimum threshold with this system, it takes away the pressure to receive a specific score in relation to everyone else in the class.
3. There is more cohesion in the classroom.
When there is a pass-fail grading system in place, then students don’t see each other as competition any more. When teachers or professors grade on a curve based on overall performance, then individual students are less likely to collaborate because helping others could impact their final grade negatively. If no one is willing to work together, then the lack of diversity can create educational gaps.
Students can work together freely with one another in the pass-fail grading system because everyone will either earn credit or not based on a specific threshold. Getting together in a study group so that everyone can pass is easier to do because there is no longer pressure to get an A grade on every assignment.
4. Students are more willing to take academic risks with a pass-fail system.
When students tackle a new subject in the classroom, then they typically avoid anything that would be challenging because of the risk that it would cause in relation to their GPA. When there is a pass-fail grading system option for some classes, then individual students feel safer expanding their horizon because there is minimal risk to their final grade calculation. Some institutions won’t even calculate the results from a pass-fail class when figuring out the grade-point average at the end of the year.
This advantage makes it possible for students to gain confidence with new subject materials while becoming well-rounded in their areas of strength. It is a process which ultimately leads to having more knowledge, which can then be turned into wisdom.
5. It creates a system which offers fairness in grading.
There are some subjects which have objective grading systems, such as mathematics and science, where there are definitive “right” and “wrong” answers. Then there are the educational materials which are more subjective, like creative writing, art, political science, and philosophy. Because there isn’t a standard method of judging a student in these areas that is universal, a pass-fail grading system creates added fairness to the educational system because grading is no longer based on favoritism or arbitrary methods.
6. This grading system removes the negative stigmas that come with poor grades.
The reality of our five-grade performance-based system is that it isn’t necessarily as informative as some people think it is since it can contain subjective preferences. That means it isn’t very effective in many courses because it may not offer an authentic reflection of what a student’s full potential could be. If a teacher grades on a curve and the scores are all generally poor, a student who earns an A grade in that class might be lucky to get a C grade in another institution.
The problem with performance-based grading like this is that it discourages the people who need the most help by assigning a negative stigmatization to their efforts. Good grades already reward those who have cognitive advantages by lifting them up even further. The pass-fail grading system create equality because there is less of a focus on the final outcome.
7. It eliminates the punitive aspects out of the grading system.
The performance-based grading systems that we use throughout the entire educational system are deeply entrenched in our identity. Even kids in elementary school receive letter-based grades which show that they are progressing, achieving, or need help in specific areas. By shifting to a strict pass-fail grading system, then you either achieve success or you do not. There is no middle ground where a student passes, but not with a GPA that is good enough to be competitive for the best-paying jobs that are available today.
The results of performance-based grades are mostly punitive unless you can achieve a score at or near the top of the GPA spectrum. It is a system which rewards one type of intelligence without giving any concern to how others think or learn. Using the pass-fail grading system gets rid of this issue altogether.
8. We can apply the pass-fail grading system at all levels.
Most kids in the United States actually start school using the pass-fail grading system for their work. Teachers up until fourth grade (and higher in some districts) indicate that a student’s work is outstanding, adequate, progressing, or needs improvement. Instead of receiving a specific letter grade, this system communicates to children and their parents where their unique strengths and weaknesses are in the classroom. Students can then make adjustments to their learning habits to ensure they can meet their target goals.
Instead of focusing on a specific letter, the pass-fail grading system looks at an approach which favors self-advocacy, self-assessment, and self-regulation. It gives a student the opportunity to evaluate their personal growth and progress to know if their comprehension of materials is adequate for their future needs.
9. No one needs a grade to learn practical skills.
If you earn an A grade in mathematics, will that be a benefit to a future career in journalism? Does earning a C grade in science hold someone back from becoming a plumber? When we look at the idea of education at the college or university level, when looking at practical or technical disciplines, then the pass-fail grading system is a better option to consider because it eliminates ratings and ranks.
Practical skills only require a student to show that they are proficient in a specific task. That means you can work at your own pace, passing the class when you show that you have a mastery of the expertise needed to pursue vocational opportunities in a chosen career. Instead of providing a façade of coherence, the pass-fail grading system can prove that a student has what it takes to be successful.
List of the Cons of the Pass Fail Grading System
1. Removing performance-based grades eliminates competitiveness.
There are many forms of motivation that you can find in the modern classroom. Some students like to challenge themselves to achieve the best grade possible. Others find that learning something new propels them toward a better GPA. Some students like to compete with others to see where they stand in the classroom with relation to the materials being studied. Most careers look at classroom placement as an indicator of success during the application process after graduation as well.
The pass-fail grading system eliminates the benefits of competition from the classroom. Instead of trying to achieve the best grade possible, students are asked to meet a lower threshold of passing. Although that line doesn’t move for either grading system, trying to earn an A grade is very different than attempting not to fail from an academic standpoint.
2. It can cause students to start forming unhealthy learning habits.
The pass-fail grading system can encourage procrastination because the work feels like it isn’t as difficult. Because students need to meet a lower minimum to earn credit for the class, there can be a lack of focus on the materials. If this attitude becomes a habit, then the homework can get put on the back burner when other classes might offer performance-based grading systems. Although the lack of pressure can be helpful for some, having stress and pressure can lead to structured and healthy learning habits that aren’t as necessary when passing the class is the primary need.
3. The pass-fail grading system does not accurately reflect student understanding.
When you receive notification of your grade in the pass-fail grading system, then you’ve either gained the credits for the class or you did not. Does the student know how well they did against the curve of everyone in the classroom? Is there clear and complete knowledge about the subject matter? Because there isn’t a performance-based grade offered to a student in most circumstances, there is no feedback offered to a student to let them know how their overall work stands up to everyone else.
Students can counter this disadvantage by speaking with their teacher or professor about what their letter-based grade might be, but some instructors might not keep track of that information if the pass-fail grading system is in place.
4. You won’t receive a boost to your GPA with a pass-fail class.
Under most grading systems in the United States, classes which follow the pass-fail grading system do not contribute any marks toward a student’s final grade-point average. The instructors will use marks like “P” or “F” to indicate that credits are awarded for progress toward a diploma, degree, or certificate. The transcript of the student, including the guidance plan, will see a benefit, but a great score won’t give your GPA a boost.
This may not always be a disadvantage, but it can be for students who typically perform at high levels in the classroom. Unless the materials are new, complex, or confusing, those with a GPA of 3.0 or higher will usually want to stay with performance-based grades to ensure they can maintain their placement for graduation.
5. Conversions to a letter-based grade are not possible.
Once you decide to pursue a pass-fail grade in class, then a conversion back to a performance-based grade is not possible under most circumstances. That can become a problem if a student finds that they need to have a score to reach a specific GPA threshold since the pass-fail grading system won’t contribute any information to that average. If you are pursuing a scholarship or classroom placement designation for your degree, the difference between having a B or a Pass on your final transcript can be the difference in achieving a goal or not.
6. It reduces the incentives to work harder to achieve something better.
Imagine that a student is currently sitting at a C grade in class. This person knows they can continue to maintain this grade level and it passes them, so they decide to take the credit over the grade by converting to the pass-fail grading system. There is no longer an incentive to study harder, put more effort into assignments, or participate more often in class. Although some students can earn an A grade without much difficulty, it can be a lot of work for others. By using this option which only offers credit, then there is nothing to incentivize the student to push themselves toward something bigger and better. Being okay is good enough in this system.
7. The pass-fail grading system does not eliminate grading bias entirely.
Many students decide to take advantage of the pass-fail grading system when they feel like the grades offered by their teacher or professor are arbitrary, subjective, or based on personal interactions. If they suspect that a poor grade is coming, this option provides them with a layer of protection against the politics that can sometimes be in place with the modern educational system.
Although this disadvantage cannot apply to materials which have definitive “right” and “wrong” answers, any class which is 100% subjective can still suffer from instructor bias. That is why students must look at each option strategically, especially in colleges and universities, to see where personality conflict could adversely impact their final grade.
8. It doesn’t work with our current system of evaluation in schools.
The strongest argument that exists for keeping performance-based grades around instead of using a generalized pass-fail grading system is that the system is entrenched in the global educational system. Systemic infrastructural changes would be necessary to transition how we think about learning, which means there would be cost implications and resistance to the new system to consider. Even though earning a specific grade can take some people to new heights, it is not driving communities or even entire generations of students to new heights.
9. We don’t really know how to learn without a grade.
Many people are highly conditioned to think of themselves in the terms of a grade. We even do this outside of the classroom at times, sometimes without realizing that this is what we are doing. Grades can cause stress and anxiety, but so can not getting them. When a student completes an assignment, then there is an expectation to receive a grade as a “reward” for the work. Without receiving that feedback, it is challenging to know whether your efforts are on the correct path for success.
Even though there are benefits to the pass-fail grading system, students and teachers are used to performance-based grading. It is a comfortable arrangement where there is a system of feedback and criticism offered that allows each person to improve their performance in the classroom.
10. Teachers would lose some of their authority in the classroom.
The traditional grading system creates a control mechanism for teachers in the classroom. It is used as a motivational factor for students who might not otherwise engage with the environment. Without the presence of a specific letter for feedback, there may be less effort placed on studying for exams. Instructors would lose a portion of their institutional power over the learning environment because there would be less fear of failure. Since this is usually the last line of defense against indolence or insolence, taking it away could drive some teachers away from their work for good.
Conclusion of the Pros and Cons of the Pass-Fail Grading System
There are several advantages to consider with the pass-fail grading system, but these issues all relate to the idea of minimizing risk. When students take a conservative approach to their educational needs, then it limits the number of rewards that are available. If you can achieve a high GPA in high school, college, or your graduate studies, then you can create a point of separation between your application for a dream job and everyone else who wants to do the same thing. Earning a “pass” could save a GPA in a tough class, but it can also prevent some students from achieving their full potential.
The pass-fail grading system offers fewer incentives because of its conservative approach. There is no need to work harder for a higher grade unless you’re below the minimum threshold to earn credit. If the majority of a student’s classes follow this approach, then it may be a challenge to establish healthy learning habits.
The pros and cons of the pass-fail grading system must be evaluated at the individual level whenever a decision must be made about one’s grades. If used strategically in ways that support a robust GPA, then it can be a useful way to study new subjects, expand horizons, and take some pressure off of the educational experience. Otherwise, this system could cause more harm than good in the way that it prepares people for their career.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.