Why schools should change to a Pass/Fail system.

Back in the day (not too long ago),  I was sitting in High School Chemistry and my teacher, Mr. Weenig, was talking about the test we had just taken and the grades we had received.  There was some crying/whining as to some of the test scores from some of my classmates and that’s what prompted Mr. Weenig to tell us all how he’d do things if he owned his own school.

He basically said, “If I were running things, all grades would be done away with; we’d use a pass/fail system.”  I think I was a Sophomore at the time and it was the first time I’d ever heard a teacher actually say something that wasn’t in support of the traditional letter grade system.

That comment left an impression, obviously.

Since then, I’ve thought about this off and on and also had some classes in College that were basically run with a pass/fail system.  I’ll say right now, I’m in favor of pass/fail classes in general.  Do I think that all classes could be run this way?


Would a teacher/school have to get creative in some cases?


(There are many other “Would … ?” kind of questions to ask and think about, but actually getting to the point of having to ask the questions is what I’m focusing on.)

Here are a few examples from my past schooling:

A class that I took in College comes to mind: Outing Activities.  This was probably the funnest classes I ever took.  We met once a week and then went and did stuff outside.  We surfed, hiked, kayaked, camped, and myriad other things each week.  If we showed up and participated, we passed.  If not, we failed.  There was a comprehensive test at the end that focused on the rules, techniques and other things we’d learned or done during the class.   If you’d been there and done that, it wasn’t difficult to pass the test.  (The test was pass/fail, too.  You could only get 3-4 question wrong and it counted for 20% of your grade…I think.)

Another example from College: Business Leadership.   Our teacher had an MBA and a Doctorate.  He didn’t think tests were a good measuring stick of learning.   He liked giving us projects that would be based on real-world tasks that a person would get at a working at a *real* job.   The projects had to meet certain criteria and were weighted on participation, completeness, presentation and a few other things.  If you did well, you passed.  If not, sorry, game over. (Or, you’re fired.)  I think we, as a class, learned more practical things in that one class than any other our whole Senior year.  (Many of my classmates would agree.)

I also liked the test I had for Spanish class.  At the end of the Semester, I had a speaking exam with the teacher one-on-one.    If you can put the words together we learned over the Semester and understand the questions, pass.  If not, fail.

There’s a lot more that could be said, but basically, I believe that if you can prove you comprehend the subject with a little margin of error, you should be able to pass the class and move on.  If not, you stay back and take it over.  (Just because someone can cram really well for a test doesn’t mean that they learned anything; though cramming will always be a part of the school experience.)

Now that Mr. Weenig is a Physician, I wonder, with his extra cash, if he’ll ever open up his own school?

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3 Responses to Why schools should change to a Pass/Fail system.

  1. Cody says:

    Hey man, sorry it’s been so long since we talked. I read this post and was very interested. Be prepared: this reply is a wing-dinger! You might need to attack it in shifts.

    This year several grade six math teachers stepped away from percent or point based grading systems and implemented a standards based reporting scheme. It went over with mixed feelings.

    Some parents loved it. They were able to see specific descriptors indicating the level of mastery their child had achieved for each learning outcome. Other parents hated it for it’s lack of easy comparison to grade norms. I love it as a teacher, but it has it’s draw backs (a whole can of worms in itself).

    Your post brought up some interesting points. I found it interesting the types of classes you used to demonstrate the effectiveness of a pass/fail system. Two college classes: one a performance based class where physical performance and participation made up the majority of curriculum (Outdoor class); the second, a business class, where project based learning seemed to be the preferred learning strategy.

    Both of these classes occurred late in your formal education journey, correct? Both of these classes occurred as part of a university setting, correct? These are important factors in your decision that they represented the success of a pass/fail system. Courses in University are perhaps better suited for such classes, especially an outdoor recreation class.

    Consider the following issue that a may not be easy to answer with the general statement that “schools should change to a pass/fail system”:

    When teaching elementary school subjects, how does a pass/fail report in grade six inform a parent or grade seven teacher on the specific areas of strength or weaknesses that must be addressed?

    There are lots of other considerations, this is one I thought of off the top of my head.

    I also found it interesting that in a post about getting rid of letter grades and percents, one of your pass/fail examples relies on an exam that is percent based. What does 20% of a “pass” even look like? Is it possible to ace every task in the course, bomb the exam and instead of getting 100% of a pass, you only get 80%? Can you see the irony there?

    I wrote a long paragraph about your Spanish example, but ended up deleting it. In short, I don’t think using a language class is necessarily a good representation of the pros and cons of pass/fail assessment strategies. My opinion has little to do with pass/fail systems and more to do with rubrics. Again, a whole different can of worms.

    Finally, this sentence from your post carries some heavy implications: “I believe that if you can prove you comprehend the subject with a little margin of error, you should be able to pass the class and move on. If not, you stay back and take it over.”

    I assume you are again limiting your focus to university level courses. If not, and you are suggesting that even in elementary, jr. high, and high school kids be held back based on a pass/fail system, then you need to do some research (if this topic is really something you want to learn about). I would start with John Hattie out of the University of Auckland. You would also do well by checking into the opinions of Alfie Kohn (someone I don’t really like or agree totally with, but his opinion is well known in education circles). Finally anything by DuFour or Morzano would help you understand more about the complexity of assessment and learning strategies.

    Let me end with this. I don’t think pass/fail systems are inherently wrong. I felt that you threw out a blanket statement and wanted to throw something back at you to think about.

    As always, I miss the crap out of you bro. I wish so much that we could have had this conversation on you back patio while we grilled up some meat.

    • robcaldwell says:

      Alright! This is great! First of all, this is the longest comment I’ve ever received! Thanks and congrats! 🙂 Second, I’m really glad that you opened my eyes. I was going to send this to you the same day I published it. I really wanted your input, because, ya know, you’re in the trenches and know a ton more about this than I do (obviously).
      I wish I had had more time to develop some of the ideas that I was writing about. I’ve had those ideas bouncing around in my mind for a long time and it was good to get them out where someone could critique them. Then, when Loralee (http://loraleeslooneytunes.com/) was asking about this on twitter (below), I though I’d weigh in.

      looneytunes: I’m on an advisory board (my emphasis is education) for a think tank.Pondering my opinion on Utah schools having “grades” for performance.

      She’d be a good one to engage; someone that is trying to drive change, etc.

      Anyway, there are a lot of holes in my argument. I shouldn’t have been so all encompassing in my last statement of moving on or staying back; too cut and dried. My examples of classes I’ve taken in the past were all based on my University studies. I’d love to discuss more specific classes in lower grades and think about whether or not pass/fail would work there or not.

      I think that there are pros and cons of both systems. Maybe the discussion needs to be whether or not the teacher can be flexible to *grade* her students as she sees fit according to the subject that is being taught? I don’t know.

      Plenty to think about though, eh? 🙂

      (I wrote this reply while thinking about grilling meat on my back porch and having this actual discussion in person!)

  2. Cody says:

    Great to see you took my comment in the spirit it was intended. The recognition for longest comment is just one more thing of the bucket list.

    I spent a few minutes clicking through the link you sent me from Loralee. I would love to hear about what kind of think tank she is involved in. I couldn’t find much on education other than her decision to home school.

    Assessment practices in the US are a huge hot topic. Mostly because of No Child Left Behind and the funding/accreditation issues attached to student performance. Having only taught at a private school in Utah, I don’t have any real authoritative opinions or experience.

    I was curious, is this topic something that just passed through your radar, or is it something that has roots that go deeper?

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