OPINION: Opt out of “opt-in” grades, embrace universal pass/no credit

A graphic of a person whose body, except for their head, is made out of a table. The table's legs are bent to represent human arms and legs. The person is crying and has "stress," "depression" and "grad school" written in their hair. On the table is a computer that is saying "C-" in a speech bubble.
(Cameron Tipton • The Student Life)

These are unprecedented times. Students have been evacuated from on-campus housing, creating uncertainty for many about how they will access basic resources that many take for granted.

Mental health has plummeted for many as well. Seniors are grieving the loss of friends they may very well never see again. Those suffering depression are struggling under the debilitating weight of quarantine. 

Students with eating disorders are struggling in spaces where healthy food is not readily accessible. Trans students potentially face constant misgendering by people from whom, at least for the foreseeable future, they have no chance of escaping.

Some, like myself, are dealing with all of the above.

This, of course, does not even begin to scratch the surface of the collective trauma faced by our community in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic, one that has already claimed over 45,000 lives globally. With the elderly particularly susceptible to this virus, many of us are experiencing anxiety about the well-being of our loved ones, for whom we know we can do little should they become infected.

I share all this to paint a picture. Imagine a student adversely affected by some, or all, of these variables. Now imagine a second student who is unaffected by all these problems. It goes without saying that the second student will succeed far more easily than the first.

It is for this reason, among others, that the “opt-in” grading system (or any system allowing for “traditional” grades) is unfair and does little more than highlight glaring disparities that on-campus college communities attempt to reduce.

No student should be allowed to fail. Pomona College should institute either a universal pass (every student receives a P for their courses this semester) or a double A system (every student receives either an A or an A- for their courses this semester).

However, given that a push for this effort is likely an uphill battle (especially given that students haven’t had a lot of time to thoroughly advocate, and the fact that ASPC is convening tomorrow afternoon to discuss policy), I will instead make the case for universal pass/no credit. I urge you, the reader, to consider my argument and mobilize accordingly.

Back to the proposed “opt-in” system, in which pass/no credit is made the default and students can still elect letter grades. This system disproportionately rewards those with access to the physical and psychological resources required to succeed in classes. Beyond that, it puts an undue burden on students who may fear being appraised critically by graduate programs for ultimately deciding against a letter grade.

Institutions like Harvard Medical School have declared that they will accept pass/no credit grades only if the institution exclusively offered such grades. That is, the opt-in system would continue to disadvantage those who pass/no credit their classes, which is antithetical to a system ostensibly designed to relieve students of at least some academic stress.

We have to face the reality that any sort of system currently offering grades based on “merit” perpetuates both classism and ableism in a way that stands in direct opposition to Pomona’s espoused values.

Let’s take a step back. What do grades evaluate? One might say they offer an insight into a student’s abilities, into the “quality” of their work. This can be reasonably (albeit imperfectly) standardized by taking certain precautions, most notably requiring students to complete assessments in class. This is perhaps the most effective way of curbing academic dishonesty.

It goes without saying that it is virtually impossible to prevent academic dishonesty remotely, no matter how many precautions are taken. Given that some courses are graded on a curve, this ultimately harms those who opt to engage with their coursework honestly and confers additional advantages to those with, for example, stronger internet access that allows one to look up answers during a time-restricted online exam. 

You cannot fairly assess the quality of a student’s work under these circumstances. Read that sentence again.

It is for this reason that I, personally, would go beyond a universal pass/no credit system (which still allows for disadvantaged students to fall behind in the face of additional adversity) and advocate for the universal pass or double A system. 

Pitzer Senate conducted a student survey earlier this week, the result of which indicated that the majority of respondents favored a universal A system, followed by a double A system (with no NC option) and a double A/NC system. It is my recommendation that we, at Pomona, follow suit and advocate for a system under which no student will be left behind.

This debate, at the end of the day, is contentious. No system will be perfect, sure. But some systems, while in theory alluring, do not have the best interests of disadvantaged students at heart.

I imagine it would be rather easy for some to cheat their way to a 4.0 semester, but, if nothing else, I want this article to serve as a reminder that we are part of a bigger community. A community of low-income, disabled, mentally ill, LGBTQ+ and otherwise marginalized students. In these isolating times, we must ensure that every member comes together to ensure the success of all.

Please, let’s not leave anyone behind.

Cameron Tipton PO ’20 is a socially distant, born-again activist. They want all their peers to succeed.

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