Students need grades, and we can have grades without sacrificing equitability


View other op-eds abut Middlebury’s remote grading policy here.

As Covid-19 rampages across the States, many students are advocating for a universal pass/fail system (UP), which aims to create an equitable academic environment for students facing difficulties, especially those who lack stable access to internet, housing and other resources. This effort has gained and continues to gain support from students and professors at Middlebury.

However, instituting UP will most likely have unintended consequences. In many cases, these consequences will harm the very students which UP intends to protect. At the end of the day, students still need grades as credentials. And, contrary to what proponents of UP suggest, we can have grades without sacrificing an equitable environment. 

Despite imperfections, the letter grading system is the last guardian of fairness in an inherently unfair society. Acquiring jobs or getting into grad schools are inherently unfair processes, given that people with more social connections, power and resources unrelated to their ability most often have a higher chance of landing those positions. If students, especially underprivileged students, do not have these resources, grades often allow them to still compete, reflecting their ability to perform. If all the transcripts the interviewer sees merely contain “Pass,” then those who could have competed with their grades may be overlooked in favor of those with other, often unfair advantages.    

Simply because other big-name schools implemented UP systems does not mean we should follow blindly. Again, there is an element of unfairness at work, as students graduating from better-known schools with “Pass” grades can use the reputation of their institutions as leverage. Although Middlebury is academically rigorous, it is often lesser known than schools like the Ivy Leagues in certain geographic areas or industries. Many people continue to ask, however nicely, “Middlebury? Where is that?”

Aside from equitability, another fundamental assumption of UP is that future employers and admission officers should recognize the difficulty faced by students during this uniquely difficult period and acknowledge the legitimacy of a pass/fail grade. This, however, is a miscalculated and optimistic assumption. UP will not protect students from the omnipresent unawareness and misjudgement that they will inevitably face when entering the job market or applying to grad schools. 

I come from a family where, under our most difficult time, we lived under $50 monthly income. Both my parents passed away when I was around 15. With nothing else to rely on, grades alone allowed me to distinguish my abilities. The same dynamic will likely be true when I apply for future jobs and grad school. The world did not stop when my family was in a mess. And I am hesitant to assume that, when I graduate in a year, the world will be forgiving of the academic sacrifices I made simply because of the mess we are currently in. While it may feel like the world has stopped, there are people — like President Trump — who do not treat Covid-19 and its aftereffects with the seriousness they deserve. Middlebury needs an academic policy that protects students from such negligence or lack of empathy. 

If taking away grades will do unintended harm, our job is to find a solution that keeps both grades and equitability. Universal A/A- (or A/A-/D/Fail, as an alternative) is one such alternative. Society’s perceptions of As and Passes are very different: An A grade means, “This student performed well despite difficulty caused by Covid-19 and should be treated seriously”; a Pass, on the other hand, means “This student merely survived.”

It is also possible to still allow grades under a modified universal pass/fail system. This alternative was supported by a number of UP supporters. The school can make it a default to receive pass/fail — making pass/fail default rather than opt-in might better suppress the stigma against pass/fail — but would still allow students who worry about societal negligence to receive opt-in grades. Last but not least, we can implement “shadow grading,” where grades count toward GPA only if the grades boost the GPA. This solution sets up a safety net for students who may do significantly worse during this unprecedented semester, but still encourages everyone to work as hard as they could. 

With the heavy impact of Covid-19 on our academic lives, we need to create a suitable academic system by evaluating all its possible impacts. We can only achieve this through collective and thoughtful effort. 

Tianzhi Li is a member of the class of 2021.

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