Grade Change: Exploring the Pass/Fail Option

Veronika Valia

“This pass/fail program came out of many departments and many people on campus. The spirit is about health. Wellness. Balance,” says Mrs. Hua.

School is stressful, and most add that the first semester of senior year is the hardest of them all, with the added stress of applying to college. Unlike some schools where ‘an A is an A’ and a 93 shows up the same as a 100 on our transcript, our percentage shows up on our report card. Every grade counts. 

But is that the right mindset? Is sweating about an 89 when that’s a pretty good grade really healthy? I don’t know, but many think putting an unhealthy amount of stress on grades leads to problems. The pass/fail option, launched last year, is an attempt to combat some of these worries regarding student health and their work/life balance.

“This pass/fail program came out of many departments and many people on campus. The spirit is about health. Wellness. Balance,” says Mrs. Hua, one of the college counselors here at Lovett.

Mr. Boswell also adds how “the program stemmed from conversations that we were having about increasing student agency and student choice in our curriculum.” 

Like Mr. Boswell, Mrs. Hua emphasizes the importance of “allowing [students] the opportunity to be curious, and to pursue things out of interest, not just because it is an Honors or AP level.”

Mr. Boswell remembers his own college days, and how a pass/fail program “is still is a very common thing to have on most college campuses.” He said that he usually took a pass/fail for classes that he was highly interested in but that did not necessarily fit within his area of expertise. He knew that he “wanted to be a part of the class and be a part of the discussions,” but he knew that with his other commitments it might have had to move to the back burner. He wanted to be able to learn for the sake of learning without worrying too much about its effect on his transcript. 

Many other schools are recognizing the importance of doing this as well. “We did not think of this,” Mrs. Hua says with a laugh. She explains how there are likely some “independent schools that do this as well.” She points out how we are primarily “trying to be aligned with institutions that have some of the same goals, missions and just the whole child approach.” Mr. Boswell also adds how it is very likely that other schools do it, just not in the same way we do. He explains how many schools have designated courses that are pass/fail, like a leadership elective, but it is not applicable for every course.

This is the second year of the program. According to Mrs. Hua, there were only  a “few students” who exercised the pass/fail option. She says that this was probably due to the fact that they launched it during second semester. It came as a surprise. As she explained: “Most students did not come into registration thinking: I’m going to take AP calc, pass/fail!”

With the program continuing, Mrs. Hua emphasized that her job is to help students decide if this program is the right “fit” for them and their goals. She says that “students have to be careful about which classes they choose to do this for.” She adds that “one of the things that I would stress is that pass/fail is not for every student. It just isn’t.”

Now, what does this mean? Who qualifies? Who is a good “fit”? 

She says that generally, it is not the best to let a student do this program if their attitude is similar to: “Yes, I only have to get a 70 to pass. This means I don’t have to try.”

Instead, she says that a student who is a good “fit” must have a compelling reason. She says that “it has to make sense in general, but there has to be a strong reason why you are willing to “sacrifice something on your transcript.”

She adds that maybe “sacrifice” is not the right word, but one must be okay with having an unknown on their transcript: something that they don’t know how colleges will react to.

Now who is a good fit? Most often, a student who wants to double-up in one subject area. “Let’s say you want to go into the medical field,” Mrs. Hua said. “As a result, you want to double up on science. You want to take AP Physics C, which is two periods, and you want to take Genetics and Anatomy. That might be really hard on your schedule, with other classes and other things you may have going on. This is a situation where one might want to grant themselves a little leeway, and take Genetics and Anatomy pass/fail.”

In another case, senior Kendall Greene explains how she chose to do pass/fail not because she was doubling up, but rather because she knew that her “college application process was very intense, and I could already foresee myself being overwhelmed.” As a result, she decided that “with her course load and other commitments, the pass fail system was a great opportunity to better manage my time and alleviate some pressure for a subject that I struggled in.”

Another senior, Brooks Mauldin, agrees. He says that he wanted to take an Advanced math, AP Calc, to “not have to worry about all the little details but still show colleges that I am taking an AP course and be good.”

Mrs. Hua said the number of students taking a course pass/fail is still small, because the program is still new and students are still unsure how colleges will view the choice. But she believes that it has the potential to be compelling for colleges because you can explain how you chose to take a course pass/fail because it is something you are genuinely interested in. 

Still, Mrs. Hua warns that not all colleges may be on board with this. “I would just say that college admission, in general, is very selective,” she says.

She suggests that students who are deciding whether or not to participate in this program should reach out to the colleges beforehand with their college counselor, and see how that certain college might evaluate a student who takes a course pass/fail.

She says to make decisions according to that feedback. As a general rule of thumb, she says that if the college feedback seems ambiguous one should probably back away, but if a college seemed supportive of that decision then one might be okay to go ahead and proceed.

In terms of what classes people tend to take with this program, it varies. 

Mrs. Hua says how she’s “seen students do it for on-level classes they’re really excited about as well as classes like AP Calc an AP Lit.”

Touching on this, Kendall adds how “it only lasts a semester.” It only lasts the first semester, the time when most seniors are doing their college applications anyways and the most stressful time. That means that if you choose to do it for a non-elective, or especially something like AP Calc, like Kendall, you have to be prepared to work for a letter grade the second semester. So, it is probably still very useful to try to understand as much of what is going on in the course during the first semester as possible so you aren’t lost in second semester.

Mr. Boswell explains the reason behind only having this available in the first semester. “We were debating letting seniors choose if they wanted to do this for fall or spring semester,” but they ultimately decided not to. He explains how he was “a little afraid of using it during the spring of senior year.” He says that he did not want to further contribute to seniors’ “changes in priority,” aka senioritis. 

In addition, it is always interesting to see what effect grades actually have on a subject. Do grades cause us to care more about the subject? Often times lots of pressure based on grades can actually make us not like it. In Kendall’s case, she says, “I didn’t end up caring less. I was still an engaged student. I went to tutorials, completed all my homework, met with my teacher during my free period, and studied regularly. It wasn’t an excuse to slack, but I was able to challenge myself without the pressure of a perfect score.” 

On the other hand, Brooks adds how “math isn’t a class I’m super interested in. It’s just sort of about passing the class.” He says that “if I took AP Law and Government pass/fail I would probably be more interested and just want to learn.”

This is important to do, especially if you are taking this program for an AP course. Although the grade is not factored into one’s GPA and does not show up on one’s transcript Brooks Mauldin says that you still have to take the AP exam. 

Mrs. Hua hopes that more students will do this program this year. She adds that “students are still kind of skeptical, students are still worried that someone is going to see that grade.” In case you are wondering, that is not going to happen. If you think you need some room in your schedule and think it would be right for you, try it out!

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