Dear Adult Leaders: Give Students a Break Through COVID-19. Trade Letter Grades for Pass/Fail Scores

Grayson Shaw on his school’s football field. (Photo: Rhae Anne Photography)

This piece is part of “Dear Adult Leaders: Listen to Youth,” a four-week series produced in collaboration with America’s Promise Alliance to elevate student voices in the national conversation as schools and districts navigate how to educate our country’s youth in a global pandemic. In this series, students write open letters to adult leaders and policymakers about their experiences and how, from their perspectives, the American education system should adapt. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our other coverage of issues affecting young people here. This week’s letters focus on the issue of providing meaningful learning in a COVID-19 environment.

To the Anchorage School Board,

These past eight months of living through COVID-19 show that remote education has been a massive struggle for all areas of the world. The reality is that every plan that is enacted will always be viewed as flawed in retrospect, because hindsight is always 20/20. Despite this position that the Anchorage School Board is in, the best strategy for COVID-19 responses should be one of harm reduction. There are a variety of policies that should be implemented that can utilize this harm reduction framework, but one simple solution that would improve the lives of students and teachers alike would be an implementation of a temporary pass/fail system for grading.

A pass/fail system has real-world applications. Ideally, the main purpose of schooling would be to prepare individuals for life as contributing members of society. Job applications in the future won’t care about GPAs, rather they will focus on skills developed from schools such as work ethic, time management and research abilities. The goal behind a pass/fail system is to develop these skills, as well as to adapt to uncertain times that would still allow for a well rounded education.

Furthermore, the primary stressor of students in Anchorage is the lack of motivation that impacts adolescents. Alaskan students are specifically impacted by seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. SAD is a form of depression that occurs during the winter, and is related to reduced hours of sunlight. In Anchorage during the winter, students experience just six hours of sunlight. This combination of work anxiety and factors such as SAD leads to a self-destructive mindset that limits productivity.

A pass/fail system alleviates this by reducing the educational stress of traditional letter grades. It would allow students to partake in more hands-on learning, be assessed for their soft skills, foster their creative thinking and analytical skills, and emphasize content mastery rather than a student’s ability to turn homework in on time. It also benefits teachers by reducing their need to assign and grade work, and allowing them to dedicate time to disseminating their knowledge of their respective subjects as well as prioritizing their own health.

Students’ lives are far more complicated than a letter, and a pass/fail system allows teachers to recognize this and utilize a system that understands how different aspects of a student’s life can reduce their educational abilities, which makes them look like a poor student on paper. A pass/fail system minimizes these extraneous disparities and still properly educates students.

Students and teachers in the Anchorage School District would greatly benefit from a pass/fail system for virtual learning because it allows for the development of necessary skills, relieves stress amongst students and reduces workloads for teachers. These times are certainly frightening, but retrospect will show that GPAs won’t be the memories from this time period. Rather, we will remember how our community adapted and took positive action to overcome these hurdles and proceed into the future.


Grayson Shaw, 18
South Anchorage High School
Anchorage, Alaska

This series highlighting the perspectives of American youth is in part sponsored by Pure Edge, Inc., a foundation that equips educators and learners with strategies for combating stress and developing social, emotional and academic competencies.

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