What Pass-Fail Means for Juniors

How the discussion of uniform grading increases tension around future college applications

With the stress of college  already weighing on the backs of all students, an attempt to ease stress may hurt more than it will help


With the stress of college already weighing on the backs of all students, an attempt to ease stress may hurt more than it will help

Darien High School students have never experienced more uncertainty towards their academic futures as they have during the last month that the COVID-19 pandemic has swept through the United States. On March 12th, 2020, Darien Public Schools officially closed until further notice and a new “e-learning” program was launched two weeks later. Schools nationwide have done everything in their power to ease the transition to e-learning. However, in an attempt to further “ease” students’ minds while we remain at home, the school district has begun throwing around a term that has frightened DHS sophomores and juniors: pass-fail grading. 

In late May, the CollegeBoard cancelled all future testing until June, and even that date remains tentative. Standardized testing uncertainties have precipitated a wave of American universities instituting a “test optional” policy for their applicants from the class of 2021. These decisions have been met with some sighs of relief as the stress of test preparation has been taken off the shoulders of juniors. However, “test optional” policies cause stress as they place more weight upon a student’s transcript for a record of academic achievement. Without SAT scores to show for years of hard work, all that we are left with is our transcripts: something that a pass-fail policy would threaten. 

Colleges have no insight as to how hard a student really works

— Junior Sarah Bogdan

In today’s incredibly competitive academic environment, grades place an objective label upon a student during the college applications process. The letter grades on a student’s transcript define them, whether that is something that school administrators would like to accept or not. That fact is the reality of junior year. That fact is the reality of today’s education system. And, as grim as it may be, it is a reality that we have come to depend upon. In fact, we are depending on it now more than ever, as our grades are the aspect of our application over which we control amidst the pandemic. Losing that control is unsettling. 

DHS junior and Community Council secretary Lucy Cullen says that students “rely on their GPAs to help them stand out to colleges.” She states that a new grading system, even for just one quarter, would simply be “frustrating for many students” who planned to either proudly submit their current transcripts in the fall or use the fourth quarter to work towards their ideal grades. 

Second semester of every high school student’s junior year is easily the most stressful academic term. According to junior Iyanna Green, the “constant pressure has weighed on [juniors’] backs” since the first mention of college.” The grades that juniors earn at the end of this year are their last chance to raise their GPA’s, demonstrate improvement for future college applications, and develop an understanding of what institutions they will likely apply to. The ability to do this is crucial, as admissions boards look at students’ transcripts through the scope of improvement, examining their achievements for a reflection of how their work has paid off over time. The interruption of this desired upward trend is one of the main issues created by a pass-fail grading system. Students will lose the ability to demonstrate their academic enhancement, something they depended upon being able to show on applications. 

Without the academic finale to our junior year being recorded in any meaningful way, the momentum we have created, the work ethic we have built, the hours of studying we have and will continue to put in, mean almost nothing anymore. Knowing our fourth quarter grades allows us a comprehensive view of our academic abilities, strengths, and weaknesses when applying to college. We need those grades to exist. 

A pass fail system gives all students the same reward for a wide variety of grades, yet there is no way to distinguish what amount of work or what level of intelligence lays behind the word “pass”

If a pass fail system were to be implemented in the place of a fair, lettered grading scale, hardworking students would not receive the “proper recognition” Green said. While the system is sometimes implemented at universities, when used in high school it upsets the academic hierarchy necessary for applications. Elite institutions examine what sets a student apart from others, whether that be grades, extracurriculars, or standardized testing. With standardized testing requirements disappearing rapidly and extracurriculars being cancelled due to COVID-19, grades are the one thing that will truly be the defining trait of applicants. But, what valuable truths can be deduced when fifty students excelled, one hundred students succeeded, two hundred did the bare minimum, and yet the word “pass” represents them all? 

DHS junior Eliza Spain says that putting all students’ “hard work ” into one “indistinguishable grade” would more quickly cause challenging consequences than it would relieve stress or pressure. In fact, more pressure would be felt to catch an admissions counselor’s eye than ever before. Using only two possible grades uniformly across an entire student body completely strips the control and pride away from the students who have worked hard to distinguish themselves.  All that the pass fail system truly does for a high school junior is force us to stress exponentially more about the rest of our application, as we can no longer depend upon our academic achievements to set us apart from thousands of others.

Great students deserve the proper recognition

— Junior Iyanna Green

The pass-fail system fails to account for the way in which that “pass” was achieved. As junior Sarah Bogdan states, “colleges have no insight as to how hard a student really works.” It is simple to understand how work ethic would deteriorate when a student who scrapes by at the minimum of “passing” reaps the same rewards as one who never wavered in the amount of work dedicated to their studies. All that a pass-fail does is promote cheating culture and poor work ethic, teaching a detrimental lesson. Students would become eager to do the bare minimum, knowing that future institutions would never know. Incentive will completely disappear. Not only will this disrupt the student’s learning, but the e-classroom environment for teachers.

Pass-fail threatens to teach a dangerous lesson: that the same benefits can be gained from minimal effort. It robs future college applicants of their control over their image in the eyes of admissions counselors, and destroys any sense of ownership or pride in one’s academic record. A “passing grade” in no way reflects a student’s intelligence, work ethic, interest in the subject, or readiness for whatever higher education they will experience. Uniform transcripts say nothing about a student. Amidst the uncertainty of our future applications, we need our transcripts to say everything.