Easy Does It

School district officials around the country are struggling to define how instruction will continue, and more importantly how students will be evaluated, given that school sites will be closed through the end of the school year. Some district administrators have decided to emulate the actions of many US colleges, and implement a Pass/No Pass grading policy. With little discussion of the consequences of such a policy change, they are creating much consternation, effectively wrenching apart the modern educational meritocracy.

One Bay Area district in Northern California, San Ramon Valley Unified School District, announced that all secondary school students will be marked Pass/No Mark, with reasoning for the change as follows:

We also know that we are aligned with other high performing school districts throughout the region, including the Palo Alto Unified School District and Acalanes Union High School District in implementing this system. Moving to Pass/No Mark reporting will benefit our middle and high school students without negative consequences for students with collegiate aspirations because the Pass and No Mark scores do not affect students’ grade point averages (GPAs).  

Email to parents and students, April 3, 2020

The Pass/Fail system gained popularity in the mid-1960’s, as college students agitated for greater freedom to learn, not simply achieve a grade. At the University of Pennsylvania, students wrote a petition stating:

‘It will lessen the pressure for grades by offering to the student a chance to study a certain number of courses for no end other than knowledge of the material,’ the committee argued. Letting students choose pass or fail would promote ‘an attitude towards learning as an end rather than a means,’ it underlined, which was ‘central to a liberal education.’

Inside Higher Ed, March 26, 2020

Yet, in the interim six decades, as part of the current educational meritocracy, Gen Z K-12 students have become habituated to “achievement”, where learning has become a “means to an end”, not the goal. So, as district officials hastily co-opt what started as an educational reform to solve a pressing organizational problem of the modern educational meritocracy, they upend the expectations of students and parents, as well as fundamentally undermine the responsibilities of teachers, all with very little oversight by district and site adminstrators.

Lacking guidance, teachers may have even less motivation to effectively instruct and accurately assess students’ performance. Enthusiastic teachers may believe their instructional efforts are wasted, as a “Pass” is all that’s necessary for their students to achieve. Secondly, less motivated teachers who strugge to reform their pedogogy in “normal” times may further disengage from their resposibilities and put forth only minimal effort.

Lastly, those teachers who have long since decided to get paid, but not teach may become punishing, arbitrarily assigning Passes and No Passes with little evidence to justify their actions. And, with administrators’ management function all but impotent, thus unaware of teachers’ actions, leaves little recourse for those students treated unfairly.

For those students who seek the highest grades in the meritocracy, under the Pass/No Pass policy, their GPA’s will diminish, since Pass marks cannot be factored into GPA. Many worry their efforts and achievements, especially in Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors classes, will not be fairly evaluated by admissions officers of those colleges to which they may apply.

Furthermore, students, who are already less motivated, with only internet-delivered videos to passively voyeur, may become even more disenchanted, knowing they only need to put forth minimal effort to earn a “Pass”. Thus, long-term, these students may need remediation when “normal” school begins again or they’ll fail to make consistent academic progress.

Yet, for students who are hampered by the educational meritocracy, Pass/No Pass may be a windfall. Now freed from the confines of academic expectations, they can focus on interests outside of “school work” or even learn to greater depth the school subjects being presented. One student shared with Creative Marbles that he and his friends have begun a third startup company with their “extra” time, no longer obligated to attend school on a regular basis, while still doing the minimal required effort to maintain his academic performance.

For parents, who are already frustrated they’ve become de facto “Teaching Assistants” and “Classroom Monitors” with distance learning, adding to their myriad other responsibilities, now may need to add “Cheerleader” to their roles, to motivate their children to actually do their school work, especially given the Pass/No Pass policy, where there will be few, if any, consequences or rewards if students “do their work”.

Given the minimal effort required for a pass, parents are concerned that many students, being less motivated, will struggle to understand complicated subject matter, like advanced science, math and social sciences, resulting in, at best, having to remediate their lack of understanding, and at worst, falling behind their peers for no fault of their own, which could have lasting social and economic effects.

Lastly, in the modern meritocracy, any reduction in academic progress is cause for alarm, which is now heightened as economic upheavel is imminent. Now, with Pass/No Pass, parents are even more concerned that since their students’ GPAs will be lower and their commitment to education diminished, lowering their options for college admisisons, affecting their prospects for economic prosperity in what will be for the forseeable future difficult economic times.

K-12 district officials should be careful in implementing any change in grading policy, given how entrenched the meritocracy has become in education. Co-opting what once started as an educational reform to solve a pressing organizational problem, given the complexity of the global health emergency that is still evolving, is a risky proposition that may bring unintended consequences. The best policy in the short term may be no change in policy, given that constitutient groups, being accustomed to a particular approach to learning and evaluation may not initially be capable of adapting so quickly to radial policy change.

Patience is a virute and effective communication key, if district administrators around the country are to navigate the uncharted educational waters in time of great tempest, while acutely unaware of the numerous icebergs that populate the icy depths.


Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, a veteran educator and consultant, meticulously helps clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity.

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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