OPINION: Pitzer should rethink its fall grading system

A cement pathway is bordered by wrought iron gates and stone pillars. A sign along the path reads "Pitzer College is closed to the public. Do not enter."
Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 argues that Pitzer’s return to traditional letter grades overlooks marginalized students and encourages the school to reexamine its policies. (Regan Rudman • The Student Life)

When the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic hit us back in March, schools all over the world hastily switched to virtual instruction. The transition to distance learning was far from easy. I remember struggling to finish my homework because my neurodivergent brother’s loud noises would always distract me. Being neurodivergent myself, I could not simply block out the noises. 

In pre-pandemic times, I’d have studied in the library, but now that was closed too. Even though our school district mandated that our grades could not drop during the quarantine, I couldn’t raise my grades like I used to. Unlike other schools, my school district maintained traditional letter grades. As a result, my grades in my final semester of high school were significantly lower than they were in previous semesters. 

Meanwhile, I envied the students at Pitzer College. I began quietly observing #NobodyFailsAtPitzer, a group of first-generation college students, on Instagram. Like many schools last spring, Pitzer originally implemented a Satisfactory Pandemic/No Record Pandemic policy with optional letter grades. Thanks to the efforts of #NobodyFailsAtPitzer and others, Pitzer changed its grading system to Universal Pass with GPA Boost/No Record Pandemic grading for the spring semester.

This fall, Pitzer returned to traditional grades, according to an email this summer from college spokesperson Anna Chang. I believe this was a grave mistake. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, Pitzer should not have a traditional letter grading system. 

I found out the reasoning behind Pitzer’s decision when I was attending virtual New Student Orientation in August. In the video about advising and academic planning, philosophy professor Brian Keeley said, “We’re setting [the courses] up to be taught [online]. We’re not kind of jumping into something new that was unexpected partway through, and so we’re gonna make sure they’re rigorous. We’re gonna make sure they work on an online basis, and therefore you ought to be able to earn a letter grade just the same as you would if it were not an online course.” 

This argument overlooked several key factors that contribute to student success (or the lack thereof) in class. Other — and arguably more important — factors include taking care of family members, chaotic home life, limited access to academic support services and unstable Internet connection. Low-income students are more likely to face these problems at home. I’ve also witnessed international students having to attend class at ungodly hours due to the difference in time zones.

“The Pitzer College faculty changed the usual grading policy in recognition of these challenges and to help reduce associated pressure and stress due to the pandemic,” Pitzer spokesperson Anna Chang told TSL via email over the summer.

These challenges didn’t go away at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. We are, after all, still in a pandemic; the United States reported more coronavirus cases in October than in April. That means that the number of Pitzer students whose families and friends have been affected by COVID-19 has likely increased. This will undoubtedly affect students’ mental health. California mental health licensing laws, however, limit access to Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services to students in California. Since classes are all online, low-income students living outside California can’t access the mental health services they need.

Several students attested to the impact of the pandemic on mental health. 

“If someone gets horrible grades this semester because they have [bad] Internet connection and a bad family life and mental health problems, that’s still going to show up on their transcript,” Elena Breda PZ ’21 said in an interview with TSL.

Petitioning to take a class pass/fail isn’t ideal either. Last semester, the initial opt-in letter grading policy favored students with resources to succeed at home. 

The inequitable nature of this system pushed #NobodyFailsAtPitzer to demand the implementation of a Universal A policy at Pitzer. 

“We didn’t want the students that would be practically forced to take a pass-fail grade to be punished in terms of grad school applications because of the limited resources they have back at home compared to the resources that we all share on campus,” Quentin Jenkins PZ ’23, a #NobodyFailsAtPitzer organizer, said in an interview with TSL. 

I don’t mean to dismiss Pitzer faculty’s efforts to navigate the changes brought on by COVID-19. I’m sure they’ve been working hard; admittedly, I don’t know all the factors that went into the decision to implement traditional grades. Nevertheless, I still think that Pitzer’s decision to go back to status quo grading feels more like a forced attempt at normalcy than a commitment to help its students succeed. 

Even though many of my professors have been understanding of the struggles students may face, student success cannot merely depend on individual accommodations made by professors. Designing courses to be online will not cure students and their family members of COVID-19. Designing courses to be online will not fix unstable Wi-Fi. Designing courses to be online will not bring economic stability to low-income families. Designing courses to be online will not soothe chaotic households. 

“I will say that I have a lot of privileges that make this semester easier for me,” Breda said. “Considering how hard this semester has been for me, I can’t even imagine how hard it is for people who have unstable home lives, for people who have worse mental health problems.”

Clearly, the grading system isn’t cutting it. “Pitzer has been said that they are working hard, but yet again, us BIPOC first-gen students are forced to advocate for the demands of marginalized students at Pitzer College because our lived-realities are not being considered,” Jenkins wrote in an email to Student Talk. 

This begs the question: what kind of grades should Pitzer students receive this semester? At first, I hesitated to support the continuation of last semester’s grading system. “A lot of people [were hesitant] to enact the Universal A policy last semester because a lot of students may log out,” Jenkins told TSL. “But — and this is personally what I’ve heard from other professors — professors saw that once the [Universal Pass with GPA Boost] policy was enacted, more students were more engaged because they didn’t have to think about the burden of trying their hardest in a class [in a pandemic]. They participated, they came and they did their work, but it wasn’t mentally draining to them.” 

For now, continuing last semester’s policy seems like a solid option to me, but I also want to explore other ways of grading, such as the Hogwarts grading system that was proposed by Ben Reicher PO ’22.

I acknowledge that in spite of the tiring virtual semester and my family life, which is more chaotic than ever, I’m really enjoying a lot of my classes and clubs. As I strive for straight As, my grades are far better than they ever were in high school. At the same time, my experience isn’t the same as everyone else’s. In order for all students to succeed, whatever grading system Pitzer decides to use must reflect the needs of its most vulnerable students. Anything other than that directly opposes social responsibility, one of the core values on which Pitzer prides itself.

Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is a passionate neurodiversity advocate from Los Angeles, California. She plans to major in psychology and minor in music at Scripps College.

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