Why over 150 student leaders support the pass/fail grading system

Do SDGs matter? Source: Karen Ducey/Getty Images via AFP

As universities around the globe shift to online learning due to the COVID-10 pandemic, new ways of teaching, learning and assessing are being cobbled together to ensure students are able to continue their course with as little disruption as possible. One issue that’s turning divisive is the adoption of a pass/fail grading system.

The rationale is to lessen student anxiety through a more forgiving structure, especially for those who have had to move home, lost jobs, or have obstacles in taking online classes such as a lack of laptop or a viable home study environment.

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With university campuses closed, students returning to family homes could be faced with various stress factors of this hasty physical displacement, such as finding quiet space for virtual classes or dealing with newfound family responsibilities. Source: Gregory Shamus/AFP

Others oppose the system as it removes the incentive factor for students to work harder to achieve excellence. They worry about how a “pass” would look on an application to grad school or medical school in future, even accusing university administration as being too prescriptive and causing “undue stress” to students for taking away the meaningful role their grades could play towards their future academic and career plan.

In the US, student body presidents and leaders from 157 universities — including Ivy League universities — have called on graduate schools, employers and governing bodies such as the Association of American Universities to evaluate Spring 2020 applicants with the widespread effects of COVID-19 in the mind.

They have collectively written and signed a letter entitled “Admissions and Postgraduate Opportunities In Response to COVID-19,” urging recipients to not penalise students who have opted, or are required, to accept pass/fail grades.

They are also appealing to them to “not rescind pre-existing offers solely based on Spring 2020 grades,” as well as lighten or remove GPA cutoffs for eligibility of specific programmes.

Additionally, they ask grad schools to lower thresholds for standardised test scores, such as the SAT and GRE, and “prioritise holistic applicant review for both undergraduate and graduate admissions.”

pass fail grades

Tequandra Rozier spends time looking at a family video after being laid off from her job at Starbucks on the campus of the University of Miami as the university joins in the effort to fight the coronavirus on March 26, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/AFP

Pass/fail grades should be considered for the benefit of vulnerable students

Student Body President at Brown University William Zhou said, “By standing together as a united collective and calling for these critical policies, we hope graduate schools and future employers will prioritise equity and accessibility in wake of this unprecedented pandemic.

He emphasised that students who are more likely to opt into accepting pass/fail grades are often those “most acutely affected by COVID-19 or hold historically marginalised identities.”

This means that those who prefer sticking to letter grading are putting the most vulnerable of students at an unfair advantage.

According to the letter, “Institutions that accept pass/fail grading only if universities mandate pass/fail, or give preference to letter grades if they are offered, unjustly disadvantage the most vulnerable students who may be going back to unstable home environments, childcare responsibilities, or additional work for an income, among many other factors.

“Pass-fail policies were enacted to enable students to prioritise the health and wellbeing of themselves and their family members given the unexpected burden of these sudden changes. As such, students should not be penalised for having a P on their transcript, regardless of whether their school had a mandatory or opt-in P/F system.”

International students facing additional difficulty in unprecedented times

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International students are struggling to adapt to the sudden transition of online learning. Source: Tony Karuma/AFP

The letter also highlighted that international students who were asked to return home are now facing “the burden of unreasonable class hours for synchronous learning, including late at night (11-12pm) and early in the morning (3-4am)”

While some universities have enacted policies to protect international students from these expectations, the letter notes that “students across the country have observed professors blatantly ignoring such efforts by requiring that students be present in their courses, or by refusing to record their classes.”

The student body presidents further brought up the issue that the sudden and unexpected transition to online learning has led to limited academic resources, which could affect their grades.

Both international and domestic students in university frequently rely on campus resources such as writing centres and library access, as well as peer-to-peer tutoring such as Teaching Assistant sessions and informal assistance from classmates and professors.

With teaching assistants and professors struggling to adapt to the new normal, the consistency and quality of tutoring services are likely to be impacted.

The letter further states, “Moreover, students who were asked to abruptly leave their campuses were also forced to leave behind study materials and books that are essential to classroom success.”

Student Body President at Washington University Ranen Miao said, “Many students are struggling to transition to online learning, especially students who come from underprivileged backgrounds. We need to ensure that we are extending empathy during this difficult  time, and reducing academic stress for students during this period of uncertainty.”

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