Pass/Fail in a Standards-based Learning System

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Anyone following education posts and articles the past couple of weeks has surely noticed that schools around the U.S. are considering making course grades pass/fail for the time that schools have moved to at-home, remote learning due to COVID-19. Understandably, schools are motivated to make such a change out of concern for issues of equity and how to best represent students’ learning during these challenging times.

ASCD guest blogger, and author of Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman, in his post Resist the urge to grade students during the coronavirus closure, raises two issues schools should consider when making this decision. First, a school should consider how confident it is in the caliber of instruction and supports it is providing for learning during the closure. He also urges schools to consider whether a student’s performance, and the school’s evaluation of that performance, is truly a reflection of the student’s learning. His recommendation is to give no grades, but if a school feels it needs to give them then it should move to pass/incomplete as the only options for grades.

So, you may be wondering how pass/incomplete grades jive with a standards-based learning system. Does that mean that students should just get a pass or incomplete for a class? Do we abandon making sure students know the targets for each assignment and giving students feedback about their progress according to those targets?

Pass/fail grading “works” when the criteria for what it means to pass is clearly articulated, rigorous, and accessible.

In his post Should We Consider Pass/Fail Grading? Tom Guskey shared his thoughts after he conducted a quick review of the research about pass/fail grading. He found that studies about pass/fail grades have been primarily at the college level. But, while the research predominantly suggests that pass/fail grading in courses does not inspire quality work or motivation for students, there are lessons to be learned from its use. Pass/fail grading “works” when the criteria for what it means to pass is clearly articulated, rigorous, and accessible. So it seems that his recommendation to K-12 schools that teachers should establish clear, attainable rigorous criteria for what constitutes passing tells us that we should not abandon our practice of clear targets, aligned assignments, and feedback to students.

Hopefully, we are all sighing with relief that the work we have done to exemplify for students what each level on our 1-4 scales looks like is not for naught. But, it may not be long before we start asking ourselves questions like how do we give a pass/fail grade when we have been using a 1-4 rubric.

 Since a 1-4 scale represents descriptive information for students (1 – novice or not meeting expectation, 2 – apprentice or partially meeting expectation, 3 – practitioner or meeting expectation, 4 – expert or exceeding expectation), and is good data for us to have when we resume school, perhaps the answer is more simple than we may first think.

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What if, to support good feedback to students and maintain some consistency in these crazy times, we continue to use 1-4 as feedback on the standards aligned to an assignment, but don’t use those numbers to calculate a grade? What if that data is there for us to review and to inform our decision of pass/incomplete? If students know that the numbers are just for feedback and are not going to be calculated into a grade, it will diminish anxiety, and it means that we aren’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

So, what can this look like in JumpRope?

When implemented in JumpRope the model described above can be represented in a number of ways. Perhaps the most straightforward method would be to use JumpRope’s course grade override feature. With this feature, a teacher manually enters an overall course grade for each student (for example, “Pass” or “INC”). This value then overrides the grade calculated by JumpRope. Essentially, each standard score is still calculated and reported by JumpRope as an aggregate of its assessment scores, but the teacher decides how each of those standard scores is attributed to the course grade. Using the course grade override feature in this way allows a teacher to review the set of standard scores and determine if the course grade should be ‘Pass’ or ‘INC’. This method maintains the valuable feedback inherent with rubric-based scores for each standard; a report still includes specific data on standards rather than a binary pass/fail. In addition to the score override, this feature also includes the ability for a teacher to write a per course per student narrative comment. A narrative comment can be an effective supplement to the course grade override; it allows a teacher to provide explicit and actionable feedback, individual to the student and the course.

As always, we invite your questions at