Mandatory pass/fail is necessary to putting students' health first and ensuring equity as we move forward with distance learning. (Illustration by Junanna Chen)
Fountain Valley High School

Opinion: Schools should adopt mandatory pass/fail grades this semester

So much is happening right now and it all feels surreal. Our top priority is to stay safe and healthy, and our schools have done their part by canceling in-person classes for the time being.

And while, according to Huntington Beach Union High School District Superintendent Clint Harwick, “teachers will resume grading while awaiting further instruction from state agencies,” students will resume feeling pressured to earn good grades during an ever-shifting global pandemic.

Especially in the face of a public health crisis, our health must always come first, physical and emotional. To support our well being, all schools should make all classes mandatory pass/fail or credit/no credit.

With the pass/fail grading scale, students receive either pass or fail grades on their transcripts. Typically, a D or above is a pass and an F is a fail, but it is up to the school to decide what constitutes pass and fail.

Based on most college and university policies, pass grades grant credit for the course and don’t raise or lower GPAs, whereas fail grades are no credit and may lower GPAs.

So, it doesn’t matter if a student gets a C or an A in a class, because a P shows up on their transcript and they earn credit for the course. Even though we should always be doing our best in school, mandatory pass/fail takes the pressure off of students.

That’s what we need more than ever so that we can focus on not getting infected, especially for families that are juggling the stress of COVID-19 in our community with care for elderly relatives, unemployment, food shortages, housing insecurity and other issues caused by the pandemic.

Given that K-12 instruction is shifting online for the rest of the school year, our curriculum and material are going to change and be amended. This is going to hit all courses hard, especially special education and interactive ones such as theater, ceramics, choir and physical education.

Our math teachers will make video lessons, and we won’t collaborate in small groups in our English classes anymore. Nothing — teaching, learning and grading — will continue as business as usual.

There’s also not going to be the same type of amount and quality of work from teachers and students because of the inevitable difficulty of distance learning.

Some teachers and students are familiar with hybrid and online courses, but most are not. Many high school students, even those who have taken online courses, will find that it’s easier to learn in-class than online because it’s hard to stay on top of your work and communicate with teachers and peers through a screen.

The confusion and stress of online learning, coupled with the fact that some students are going to take advantage of online classes and cheat, ultimately raises the questions of how valid our letter grades will be when the semester ends.

We need mandatory pass/fail is to ensure that there’s equity as well. HBUHSD has minimized the digital divide gap with its one-to-one chrome book program and provides Internet hotspots, but the playing field still isn’t level.

We’re not at school, so we don’t have access to the same resources, such as fast Wi-Fi, free peer tutoring and quiet places to do work.

As Princeton University’s student publication The Daily Princetonian wrote, equity on campus is a baseline that “allows professors to evaluate students on a graded basis.”

Online courses don’t have that equity and lower-income families are likely to be the most disadvantaged, so there’s no way for every teacher to fairly assess their students on an A-F scale. The only fair grading method during this pandemic is pass/fail.

Pass/fail definitely isn’t a perfect system; perhaps the worst part of mandatory pass/fail is that no student can raise their GPA this semester and their work from up until school closure won’t be recognized.

Many students aim for a specific GPA to improve their class rank and to strengthen their applications for college, scholarships, financial aid, internships and more.

One way to compensate for the lack of letter grades is for teachers to write comments on transcripts about a student’s performance. All college admissions should view applicants holistically and give students more opportunities to show who they are beyond their stats.

Keep in mind that every American has been affected by COVID-19 one way or another; institutional empathy is what’s going to make pass/fail okay this semester.

Countless colleges and universities, such as YaleStanfordCarnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley, have adopted optional, mandatory or variations of pass/fail.

Harvard emailed prospective junior applicants stating that students who submit transcripts with pass/fail grades will not be disadvantaged in any way.

The University of California is going to be SAT and ACT test-optional and accept pass or credit grades from spring/winter/fall 2020 for fall 2021 admissions.

We’re going to continue seeing higher education change undergraduate policies in response to COVID-19 and be more flexible with their applicant pool.

They know that high schools are experiencing the same problems. They know high school juniors are facing the brunt of modified AP exams and SAT and ACT cancelations. They have empathy for us and will make exceptions.

I guarantee that most people who are against mandatory pass/fail and prefer to stick with letter grades or adopt optional credit/no credit are the students with stellar grades.

I, too, have straight A’s, and all I have to say to these students is don’t be selfish. We are on “an unequal playing field,” letter grades and optional pass/fail are not equitable right now.

Another understandable concern regarding mandatory pass/fail is that even though many students are academically inclined and hard-working, more students will do the bare minimum to pass because A’s are not in the equation anymore.

That says a lot about how our education system works, but it’s a story for another day. To encourage students to actively participate online as they do in school, teachers need to lay out clear expectations so that students know what they need to do to pass the class.

Pass/fail grading is uncommon in K-12 education, but Palo Alto, Long Beach, Irvine and Tustin Unified School Districts have adopted variations of pass/fail or credit/no credit. Other districts are likely to do the same, so it can be a reality for HBUHSD.

As we move forward during this unprecedented global pandemic, hopefully our leaders will recognize that we need also unprecedented solutions such as mandatory pass/fail to put the physical and mental health of our students first.