Thursday, April 9, 2020

#SOL20: Pass Fail: Notes from the Pandemic

From Above


With the disruption of school, one of the many questions facing educators is how to fairly grade students. How do we determine marking period and end-of-the-year grades? Much of the dialogue about such things saddens me. The conversation feels like a Möbius strip. We go round and round and round with no exit because there are consequences to every action. Every single one.

It isn’t an easy situation, even if we want it to be. For example, students vying for college athletic scholarships are subject to the NCAA rules. NCAA determined:

“In Pass/Fail grading situations, the NCAA Eligibility Center will assign your high school's lowest passing grade for a course in which you received a Pass grade. For most high schools, the lowest passing grade is a D, so the NCAA Eligibility Center generally assigns a D as a passing grade.” From here
So pass-fail could actually harm students. 


One task raised today was the necessity for the creation of a rubric if pass/fail is selected as the option for grading students’ performance during the last marking period. I thought about what that rubric might look like and each time I tried to write the column that said Fail, I paused. 



There was simply no justification I could fathom that would allow for an explanation as to why a child failed X during a pandemic. 

No justified reason.



For each common argument, such as, “the child handed in no work during the marking period,” I thought well, that could be true.  It’s likely it is probable. But what it means can be varied. Unknown. Contradictory. 

What does ‘handed no work in‘ mean when home is crumbling? What does that mean when there are five learners under one shaky roof and the Internet is sporadic and the chrome book is being shared among all? What does it mean that your beloved grandma just died in a room far away and all alone? What does it mean? 

I used the lines of the rubric to draw a sad face with both eyes closed. I admitted defeat. I cannot and will not write that kind of document. 

This is not normal schooling. 
This is not anything we have known, even if we attempt to dress it in distance learning garb. It is not that.


Last week I sat in on a virtual class and listened when a senior said,  "Being quarantined let's you have enough time to think about life." He told his classmates that he had a  question he wanted to ask them. 

He qualified an earlier statement he had made about beliefs. He said,  "I wasn't talking about self-negative. Do you think you only focus on that because of society? What do you really think? This time makes me think about life."

In response to the student’s question, another student spoke about not liking her dark, black skin as a child and wanting to be lighter. She said, "We point out (that) as our true negative. We point out what people point out about you."

The first student pressed here and asked if that was about herself “or was that from society?"

I sat 20 miles away. Outside the sliding doors rain fell steady and though I didn’t know what to make of the conversation, I knew instinctively that these students were naming philosophical worlds.


Could you write a rubric that could contextualize the moment that gave rise to that inquiry? Do you think you would have been able to recognize, let alone evaluate, the promise of such dialogue? In our rush to quantify, we miss the present, the promise.

If nothing else, a pandemic ought to teach us to not trust so easily the quantification of our reality. Numbers are rarely truth.


The young man sitting in his home talking on a phone to classmates scattered across a city with sharply rising COVID 19 cases was asking questions philosophers have grappled with too. The young girl joined in that dialogue, questioning whether past events (in)form present beliefs of self.  Surely the bigness of these ideas gives us pause.

George Herbert Mead (1932) wrote: 
Given an emergent event, its relations to antecedent processes become conditions or causes. Such a situation is a present. It marks out and in a sense selects what has made its peculiarity possible. It creates with its uniqueness a past and a future. As soon as we view it, it becomes a history and a prophecy.

I didn’t think about Mead at that moment, but I did think of Western philosophy.  Days later I found myself reading the Mead essay and that reminded me of the dialogue between the students. Earlier tonight, nearly two weeks after the event,  a friend brought up Mead’s name after hearing the question the student posed. it reminded me that measurement is rarely tied to a singular event. Events get folded together and the interpretation of the initiating situation is influenced by what comes next and next and next.

Time has never been a linear matter. Remembering the dialogue, reading Mead, and thinking about pass/fail rubrics has me thinking about the spurious ways we measure learning. Perhaps a pandemic gives us reason to suspend such evaluation and admit we should not measure. We should not pretend that what is happening is school. We should be braver than that.


George Herbert Mead. "The Present as the Locus of Reality" Chapter 1 in The Philosophy of the Present, edited by Arthur E. Murphy. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court (1932): 1 - 31.


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