Coffee and Chat with the Special Needs Consultants | Q: Pass/fail vs. letter grades?

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Do you sometimes feel alone in your unique homeschooling situation? Ever wish you could just grab a cup of coffee and come over for a cozy chat with your HSLDA Special Needs Consultants? Please don’t think we are too busy to take your calls and emails! We are here for you every step along the way of your homeschooling journey and in fact are in the thick of homeschooling our own children. No question or need is “too silly” and often a listening ear is comforting.

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We want you to know that homeschooling your child with special needs is possible and we are here to equip and encourage you along your homeschooling journey. In fact, we will be answering some of your questions in this brand new Q & A series called “Coffee and Chat with HSLDA’s Special Needs Consultants.” Here is the first part of this series.

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Meet your HSLDA Special Needs/High School Consultant: Joyce Blankenship is a single homeschooling mother of five talented, smart, beautiful daughters (three of whom have already graduated from high school at home, completed college, and launched their careers). Originally a native of sunny California, Joyce now lives in Virginia and enjoys swimming, nature, reading, and helping other homeschooling families, particularly those with learning struggles. 

Q. Are taking courses using a pass/fail basis a good option for a child with learning struggles? My 9th grade daughter struggles with math and has been recently diagnosed with dyscalculia. Her evaluator informed us that her high school math courses could be graded using a pass/fail basis. Is this a good idea?

A. Good question! This is something a lot of parents ask about. When the professional diagnosed your daughter’s learning disability in math, their documentation should have provided you with a section that listed their recommendations. Such recommendations would include testing and instructional accommodations along with modifications that you could use with your daughter in her homeschool math program.

Some common accommodations/modifications for dyscalculia are use of a calculator, extended time on tests, use of graph paper, providing a large work space, using a problem-solving reference chart, reducing the number of problems, reducing the amount of copying, and modifying grading scale or grading pass/fail. (You can learn more about dyscalculia from HSLDA’s Faith Berens here.)

You may want to consider assigning your daughter a letter grade in math, even though using a pass/fail grade is listed in the above accommodations for dyscalculia. This could be a good decision for two reasons.

First, pass/fail grades are not calculated into a grade point average on the high school transcript, and our high school educational consultants recommend using them sparingly, if at all.

Second, with the use of any needed math accommodations in her daily assignments and tests, your daughter may end up earning a higher grade than might be expected. And allowing her the opportunity to earn a letter grade for her hard work can help her experience the pleasure of being rewarded for and rejoicing in a job well done.

Below are some general guidelines for grading a high school course.

  • Decide before the course what categories you will use to determine the grade. For math, these might include daily tests, quizzes and daily assignments.
  • Determine what percentage each category will contribute to the final grade. For example, 50% tests, 30% quizzes and 20% daily assignments.
  • You then use the individual scores for each category and take a weighted average using the percentages that you have assigned.
  • Grading subjects like history or English can be more challenging. In addition to tests, you may want to use categories such as projects and papers to base your grading on. As you grade demonstrations, timelines, compositions or speeches, consider using a rubric which is a scoring tool that defines in writing what is expected of your student to achieve a particular grade. Your student can check their work against the rubric before turning it in and make any needed improvements. Learn more about rubrics here.

I hope this chat has helped you decide what kind of grading would be best for your daughter’s math courses this year. If you are interested in boosting your grading mojo even more by diving a little deeper, I’ve included a few resources below that vary from a quick read to entire guidebooks. I’d love to hear how it works out for your daughter—and anytime you have questions about homeschooling, I’d be delighted to get together for another chat!*

* If you are an HSLDA member and you are reading this, you are welcome to reach out to me with your questions at

Recommended Resources:

  • Grading Guidelines for High School by HSLDA’s High School Consultant Team—A one-page read that will give you a more detailed understanding of various evaluation and grading methods, how to select and apply them in your homeschool, and how to help your teen understand and take responsibility for earning grades.
  • Evaluating High School Course Work with HSLDA High School Consultant Diane Kummer—This six-minute video gives you a quick overview of evaluating your teen’s work to help you award grades with confidence.
  • The Homeschooler’s Guide to Portfolios and Transcripts by Loretta Heuer, M.Ed.—Loretta homeschooled her two sons from preschool through high school. In this practical and easy-to-use guide, she offers a variety of models and templates for developing transcripts, course descriptions, and portfolios. This resource will help you as a busy homeschool mom organize, review, and showcase your student’s homeschool learning and accomplishments. (Although this book is out of print, we still think it’s a great resource if you can get your hands on a copy.)
  • Making the Grade: A Practical Guide for Grading and Evaluating Homeschooled Children by Lesha Myers—This tried and true resource guide provides numerous templates, charts, and examples, such as rubrics and checklists for evaluating your child’s homeschool work.  Of particular help are the two sections on how to evaluate the writing process and compositions.


Interested in more tips? Here is part 2 of this series discussing how to teach a child with global developmental delays.

Photo Credit: Graphic design by Anna Soltis. Photos copyright 2018 HSLDA. 

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