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Open Access Research article

Evaluating a grading change at UCSD school of medicine: pass/fail grading is associated with decreased performance on preclinical exams but unchanged performance on USMLE step 1 scores

Susan GR McDuff1, DeForest McDuff2, Jennifer A Farace1, Carolyn J Kelly1, Maria C Savoia1 and Jess Mandel1*

Author Affiliations

1 University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, 9500 Gilman Drive #0606, San Diego, CA 92093-0606, USA

2 Quant Economics, Inc., San Diego, CA 92130, USA

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:127  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-127

Published: 30 June 2014



To assess the impact of a change in preclerkship grading system from Honors/Pass/Fail (H/P/F) to Pass/Fail (P/F) on University of California, San Diego (UCSD) medical students’ academic performance.


Academic performance of students in the classes of 2011 and 2012 (constant-grading classes) were collected and compared with performance of students in the class of 2013 (grading-change class) because the grading policy at UCSD SOM was changed for the class of 2013, from H/P/F during the first year (MS1) to P/F during the second year (MS2). For all students, data consisted of test scores from required preclinical courses from MS1 and MS2 years, and USMLE Step 1 scores. Linear regression analysis controlled for other factors that could be predictive of student performance (i.e., MCAT scores, undergraduate GPA, age, gender, etc.) in order to isolate the effect of the changed grading policy on academic performance. The change in grading policy in the MS2 year only, without any corresponding changes to the medical curriculum, presents a unique natural experiment with which to cleanly evaluate the effect of P/F grading on performance outcomes.


After controlling for other factors, the grading policy change to P/F grading in the MS2 year had a negative impact on second-year grades relative to first-year grades (the constant-grading classes performed 1.65% points lower during their MS2 year compared to the MS1 year versus 3.25% points lower for the grading-change class, p < 0.0001), but had no observable impact on USMLE Step 1 scores.


A change in grading from H/P/F grading to P/F grading was associated with decreased performance on preclinical examinations but no decrease in performance on the USMLE Step 1 examination. These results are discussed in the broader context of the multitude of factors that should be considered in assessing the merits of various grading systems, and ultimately the authors recommend the continuation of pass-fail grading at UCSD School of Medicine.

Medical education; Pass-fail grading; Honors-pass-fail grading; Educational measurement