Test or No Test? Grades or Pass-Fail?
By Paul Lim | Kaplan SAT & ACT Trainer
In the last article, we discussed the issue of whether SAT and ACT scores are better indicators for college admission, or should we just abandon the whole system and come up with something else, like another test. This time, we are going to look at a closely related topic: whether it is better for students to get Pass/Fail instead of grades (A to F) during this uncertain time of coronavirus pandemic.
Many schools in the US have concluded that now is not the time for grades because they think that it would be unfair to students because they do not have the same experience with online learning. Students of well-to-do families can enjoy the latest hardware and non-stop Wi-Fi at home, while other students may not even have internet access. Therefore, instead of grading them equally on the work that they produce, schools will just give the students a Pass or a Fail. This is just like making SAT and ACT optional; it is a big experiment in education. And people are saying that once they are finished “experimenting” with this, they may never fully return to letter grades in the future. If you see this as a very close analogy with the SAT/ACT tests, you are not alone.
The original intention of grading can be traced back several centuries to English universities like Oxford and Cambridge: it is meant to motivate students. Students tend to work harder if there is something that they could aim for and reach. In this way, they are motivated to learn and achieve higher grades. However, after hundreds of years, schools and parents alike have lost sight of this noble intention. Grades become a be-all and end-all. They have become the only important thing in school and everything else becomes secondary. Today, grades have finally undermined both the motivation and the pleasure of learning.
But this is not the intended result; it is only collateral damage. What can we do now? Should we do away with grades and go with Pass/Fail? But doing away with grades will only make things worse. Going with Pass/Fail will definitely demotivate a lot of students and parents. If we do that, we will end up with nothing: no motivation and no learning. The only solution to this is to get back to the basics: the original intent of grades. Schools have to use grades to help students to learn. They should not be used as a substitute for learning: “If you don’t understand, just memorize this so that at least, you can get good grades in the exams.” Does that sound familiar? Schools and teachers usually take the short-cut and the easy way out.
In the same way, SAT/ACT tests have not been fair to all students and neither have they been very motivating. But is there a better alternative? The clear alternatives are either to have nothing or another test to replace them. Both of them are non-starters because they will get us back to square one. We need to help students, motivate them to learn and achieve higher scores. This is also what I have been emphasizing with many of my students. To help them to learn the concepts; to help them to improve not only in the short-term, but also in the longer-term; to motivate them to achieve a higher score in the next test. Aren’t these what test scores or grades should accomplish?
People who try to abolish tests, test scores, or grades are trying to demolish the current system without offering a better alternative. They are trying to destroy something old without building something new to replace the old.
Mr. Paul Lim
Kaplan SAT and ACT Trainer
MBA, National University of Singapore
B.Sc., Harvey Mudd College
- Over 15+ years of experience in teaching SAT and ACT
- Graduated from a prestigious U.S. college
- Proven record in helping students achieve a perfect subject section score of 800
- Author of a book on effective learning strategies for mastering vocabulary
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