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FAQs about Pass/Fail Grading

These Frequently Asked Questions were first shared with Upper School families via email on April 2, 2020. They will be expanded when further information is available. 

1. Are other schools also moving to Pass/Fail?

Yes. We are joined in this decision by schools across the country, such as Andover, Exeter, UChicago Lab School, and in our region, such as Trinity, Fieldston, Brooklyn Friends and Friends Seminary. Many of our other peer schools are considering Pass/Fail and will announce their final decisions in the coming days. 

2. Will all classes be graded Pass/Fail?

Yes. All classes, including Independent Study and Peer Support, will be graded on a Pass/Fail basis.

3. How will Pass/Fail grades affect students’ GPA?

Pass/Fail grades for spring 2020 courses will not enter into GPA calculations. While this may be a concern, particularly for juniors, many colleges and universities across the country (please see below) are reasserting the importance of their holistic evaluation criteria given the unusual circumstances that have resulted from the pandemic. 

4. What will happen to the grades students have earned before the start of remote learning?

Students’ performance at the beginning of the semester will factor into their end-of-semester comments. For juniors in particular, teachers will share with the college counseling team an evaluation of students’ course performance and engagement before the start of remote learning. This will allow counselors to provide a more nuanced picture of the second semester and to cite instances of student growth in their college recommendation letters.

5. How will colleges react to Pass/Fail grades?

Colleges and universities across the country are proactively communicating to potential applicants that they will not be disadvantaged by "Pass” grades for the spring semester. In fact, many colleges have moved to pass/fail for their own courses. Like us, these schools recognize that the criteria by which students are assessed will be different in remote learning. 

Here are a few examples: 

Jessica Marinaccio, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid at Columbia, writes:

“Many secondary schools are transitioning to remote instruction in order to allow students, teachers and staff to stay safely at home and reduce exposure to the coronavirus. Spring dates for standardized exams may have been cancelled or rescheduled. College fairs, campus tours and regional admissions travel are being curtailed. These decisions are not made lightly, and I know that we are all trying to support and encourage students during these unprecedented, challenging times while also seeing to our own safety and well being.

“Please be assured that Columbia Undergraduate Admissions fully supports the pedagogical and administrative decisions your school may make in order to assist your community through this crisis. For example, pass/fail marks or alternative grading methods in lieu of letter or numerical grades will be accommodated in our review of final transcripts. We all have plenty of obstacles to navigate in the months ahead, and submitting paperwork for your college-bound students should be the least of your concerns.

“Furthermore, as we consider younger students, we understand that disruptions may significantly alter the trajectory of their extracurricular, athletic and other pursuits. Students might not have access to summer programs or other enrichment experiences. Their college applications will likely look different than they have in the past. We remain committed to our holistic and contextual review process that considers the individual circumstances that shape each applicant's journey.” 

William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admission at Harvard, writes:

“Spring Semester Grades: We know that many students will only be able to present pass/fail grades or other similar marks on their transcripts this spring. They will not be disadvantaged as a result.”

Similarly, James Nondorf of the University of Chicago writes: 

“We recognize that school transcripts will look different for many students this year, and we will work with that! Academic progress as usual is currently being disrupted for students across the globe. We encourage students to continue to engage with whatever method of learning your school is able to offer, and to do so to the best of your ability. If your school moves to an alternative grading system or method of credit notation (pass/fail, credit/no credit, etc.), we will fully understand why the change has been made and it will not, in any way, be an issue for an admissions office.”

6. Can students choose to get a letter grade rather than “Pass” at the end of the semester?

No. We are moving to Pass/Fail grading because the criteria by which we will assess students will necessarily be different in remote learning. Nor can we retroactively assign a letter grade without raising questions of objectivity and equity. 

7. Can students receive a Third Quarter grade?

No. By the structure of our academic calendar, major assessments in many classes were scheduled to take place in the week before spring break and in the last weeks of the Third Quarter. Because of the disruptions leading up to the early close of school, many of those assessments did not and will not take place as originally intended. Therefore, there is an insufficient basis for fair Third Quarter grades.

8. What will the transcript look like from this year?

We will adapt this year’s transcript in order to report the Semester 1 grade and a P/F for Semester 2. 

9. How will assignments be graded?

We know that the means and methods we will use to evaluate students will evolve along with our understanding of how to best teach in these new circumstances. However, in each instance, teachers will define the criteria by which they will evaluate student work. Teachers will provide feedback on student work for the remainder of the year using criteria defined for each assignment. Assignments will not be evaluated with letter grades. 

10. How will teachers determine whether a student passes or fails?

We know that the means and methods we will use to evaluate students will evolve along with our understanding of how to best teach in these new circumstances. However, in each instance, teachers will define the criteria by which they will evaluate student work. Students must meet the threshold expectations communicated to them by their teacher across the range of course work to receive a passing grade. The end-of-semester comments will capture the quality of each student's work and engagement over the course.

11. How will Pass/Fail affect petitions for placements into advanced class?

For students who have not already received approval for advanced or Advanced Topics classes, teachers’ continued evaluation of student work this semester will factor into placement recommendations. We will clarify the timing of the final placement decisions as we finalize the 2020-21 course registration process.

12. Will there be final exams?

The timing and nature of final assessments have not yet been determined.

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