What’s wrong with the A-F grading policy.

The case for Pass/Fail in Secondary Schools

When my wife told me that most medical schools in the US are pass/fail, I was dumbstruck. “What do you mean?”, I asked incredulously. How could the smartest people in the country take their classes pass/fail? Wouldn’t they just start skipping class since there was no more competition? Wouldn’t they do just enough to fulfill the requirements and give credence to the age old adage “What do you call a doctor who graduates last in his/her class?” A Doctor. And the other one that goes, “D’s equal Degrees”.

She was very patient with me (she has the patience of a saint…) and explained the rationale and science behind it. “It started back in 2007 with the University of Virginia”, she said. “That year the incoming class was to be graded on a pass/fail system while their scores would still be calculated and compared to the students of the 2006 class.” The results would be compared as well as the overall well-being of the med students.

The results of the study were actually pretty telling. According to The Wall Street Journal the students of the class of 2007 showed in the study:

The pass-fail students had similar results on a medical-licensing exam and similar success getting matched into quality residency programs (based on the programs’ board-certification pass rates). And the pass-fail folks didn’t skip class more than the A-F students did.

That wasn’t all. The study also revealed that the med students weren’t as concerned with being competitive with each other and embraced collaborative learning. In addition, they also exhibited less stress and anxiety than their peers from the class of 2006. Since the publication of this first of its kind study, most med schools now employ a pass/fail grading methodology. Schools like, UCLA, Harvard, Dartmouth, et al. You get what I’m driving at here… If the top medical schools in the country determined that an A-F grading structure was detrimental to the well-being and success of their students and changed their policy, why shouldn’t we be looking at pass/fail as a realistic solution to grading students in middle schools and high schools across the country? So many of us have it in our heads that since we were graded with an A-F policy that it’s good enough for our kids. This acceptance of the status quo prevents us from looking at other options that actually might be better for modern students than what we went through as children.

If we want our students to be open to the learning process, we should be looking at experimenting with policies that create an atmosphere of collaboration and learning. P/F classrooms do this. When students no longer feel the specter of the anxiety inducing grade-cloud hanging over their heads, they engage in helping each other reach understanding of difficult concepts. We have an opportunity in front of us and a choice to make. Do we stick with the status quo that has failed our education system? Or, do we take a risk to forge a new direction. One that has demonstrated, scientifically, that student achievement is directly linked not to grades, but to collaboration. We should start practicing what we preach in class.

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