Grading systems: the Pass/Not Pass system


REPORTING student learning by using a grading system is not a holiday. As has been said many times over, evaluating can never be objective. Nevertheless, every teacher wants to be fair and objective. Shall we say then that we teachers TRY as much as possible to be “accurate” — that is, the grade we give is an unbiased measure of the student’s performance within a designated timeline.

Grades are an exercise of professional judgment. Based on an HEI’s policy, they can be in percentage form (75%, 90%, etc.), letters (A, B+, etc), numbers (5, 4, etc.) or adjectives (Superior, Average, etc.) — each form in the service of the other forms. Percentage grades could be from 50% to 100%. Hence a school may set a policy to fix the lowest possible but not necessarily the highest possible grade that can be given, such as 70% as the symbol for a failed subject and 75%, for minimum passing. Particularly for a Law School, this policy does away with the likelihood that students are graded 71, 72, 73 or 74. Statistics-wise, 73 or 74 could be raised to 75; this policy saves academic officials from having to do so along with possible legal problems.

Working in academe for half a century, and while heading for eight years the Arts and Sciences College at Xavier University, the Ateneo de Cagayan, I had often sought a reason why a failing grade could be as low as 65% when 70% is already Failed — admission and counselling services well in place. Giving 65% I thought was like kicking a dead man! This prompted me to do a close reading on letter grades which I hoped could be better for all concerned.

There are four types of letter grades.The first is the P/F which could be High Pass, Pass and Not Pass or Failed. We confine our topic today on P/F letter grade. Referring to the web for the P/NP or P/F grading system in Philippine universities, I note that most universities, particularly public HEI’s, follow the grade point system scale of 5.00 -1.00. “Only a few graduate schools employ the Pass or Fail system.”

I web-searched which Philippine universities have a formal P/NP system and found only one — at de la Salle University Graduate School, applicable to undergraduate perquisite or refresher courses that a graduate student needs. Its guidelines further state that for students “enrolled in an academic subject with a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ grade, the number of credit unit is included in the computation of the total number of units a student is enrolled in during the trimester. This grade however, will not be included in the computation of the Grade Point Average” or GPA.<http://www.dlsu.edu.ph/admissions/graduate/grading_system.asp.>

Our higher education system being similar to that of the US, I referred to the University of California Berkeley and noted that the P/NP grading option was designed “to encourage students to explore new academic areas or take challenging, far-ranging courses without undue concern about grades. Passed grades “require a level of performance at least equal to a letter grade of C-. Neither P nor NP grades affect the UC grade point average.” As a general rule, Passed grades shall not be more than “one third of the total completed units taken on the Berkeley campus at the time of graduation (including Passed grades earned through the Education Abroad Program, the University of California Intercampus Exchange Program, and University Extension).”

The same guidelines specify the use/non-use of the P/NP letter grade at Berkeley. It is not applicable to (1) “students on term or are on overall academic probation,” (2) “courses previously taken on a letter-graded basis (may not be repeated on a P/NP basis),” and (3) “Entry Level Writing, Reading & Composition, Foreign Language, Quantitative Reasoning, and most major requirements (with possible exceptions in some departments).” Finally, “Passed units cannot be applied toward the minimum 13 letter-graded units required for the L&S Dean’s Honors List each semester” but are applicable to (1) courses taken “to fulfill the American Cultures requirement” and (2) “the L&S Seven Course Breadth requirement.”

These Berkeley “Breadth requirement” courses serve a similar purpose of cognates and free electives in Philippine higher education curricula. They are designed to provide “students with a rich and varied educational experience outside of their major program,” giving “students a view into the intellectual life of the University while introducing them to a multitude of perspectives and approaches to research and scholarship.” As at Berkeley, these courses enrich students with exposure to connections among disciplines — how the various disciplines could be at the service of other disciplines. At Berkley, such courses could be in arts and literature, biological and physical sciences, historical and social sciences, International Studies, philosophy and values. These courses widen “the breadth experience,” and strengthen “interdisciplinary connections and context.” They prepare graduates “to understand and solve the complex issues of their day.”<http://ls-advise.berkeley.edu/registration/pnp.html>

We end this discussion on the P/NP grading system with terminologies describing the nuances of connections among disciplines. Thanks to Alexander Refsum Jensenius quoting Marilyn Stember (1990) who offers us the following: intra-disciplinary means “working in a single discipline;”cross-disciplinary is “viewing one discipline from the perspective of another;” multidisciplinary refers to “people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge;” interdisciplinary is “integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches;” and transdisciplinary means “creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.” <http://www.arj.no/2012/03/12/disciplinarities-2/> (Grading systems: to be continued in next week’s column)

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Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon,PhD, is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies have included not only education and pedagogy but also literature. She has studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Britain and Japan. She is now the Vice-President for External Relations and Internationalization of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro) after serving as its VP for Academic Affairs for six and a half years concurrent to her ten years as dean in the Graduate Studies of the same university. She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the central office of the Commission on Higher Education.


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  1. I was in College up to the year 1965. Our grading system are in numbers. Five (5) is fail and three (3) is pass. But we have a grade of four (4) which is condition. The (4) is a borderline between pass and fail and you have to take a re-exam in order to prove that you pass or you fail, a last chance. The 4 in grading system is justified and logical because there are many cases where the output shown by the student lies between a grey area. The student should be given a chance to prove that he deserves to have a passing grade or a failing grade. The pass (3) / fail (5) is not a prudent logic. It is like a yes (1) and no (0) of a computer output. In reality there is a maybe just like in fuzzy logic. It is not an absolute yes or an absolute no because in real life there is a maybe. The Japanese who is the leader in appliance manufacture industry use this fuzzy logic of maybe in the design of their appliances like washing machines in their sequence of operation logic. There shall be a “maybe” in all cases. The maybe is subject to a confirmation on the next sequence.

  2. “I had often sought a reason why a failing grade could be as low as 65% when 70% is already Failed — admission and counselling services well in place. Giving 65% I thought was like kicking a dead man!”

    As a DepEd Teacher we are following DepEd order no.8 series of 2015 wherein the lowest grade we could give is 60% and the highest grade is 99%. And the passing standard for this new grading system is 60% or 60 out of 100 items. Dr. Tumapon, do you think this is justifiable given that half of public school students, especially those coming from dysfunctional and economically challenged families cannot reach the 60% passing mark?