Grading takes center stage as students prepare for unprecedented shift to online classes

By TONY SJODIN

#FairGradesMidd (above) advocates for universal pass/fail and A/A- as fairer alternative models to Middlebury’s opt-in Pass/D/Fail model. #OptInMidd (below) petitions Middlebury to continue with the current opt-in model, which it announced on March 16.

The transition to remote learning sparked debate about equitable grading during the Covid-19 pandemic, after most students were sent home to continue the spring semester on digital platforms such as Zoom and Panopto.

On March 16, Middlebury announced a grading policy that would allow students to continue working toward a letter grade or to opt for a Pass/D/Fail grade in any class. Because of the emergency nature of the pandemic, decisions about changing academic policies — which would typically require several months of debate and be made with the input of a broader range of faculty — have been taken on by the college’s “ad hoc academic continuity group,” composed of five faculty and five faculty administrators.

Following the email announcing the new grading system, some students organized a petition — originally titled #NoFailMidd — to advocate for a universal pass/fail grading system.

The five student organizers of #NoFailMidd raised concerns in the petition about socioeconomic inequalities inherent in an opt-in Pass/D/Fail system, citing a lack of resources or added responsibilities at home as challenges that might push some students toward the Pass/D/Fail option, while allowing their more privileged peers to pursue GPA-boosting letter grades.

Following the launch of #NoFailMidd, other student advocates launched a sister campaign pushing for a Dual A policy modeled after some Harvard students’ “Double A proposal”. The two campaigns have since merged, evolving into #FairGradesMidd. An updated petition and an op-ed in The Campus, written by organizers, have since been publicized.

“People have come out and acknowledged how this approach that the college is taking is really blind to privilege,” said Arthur Martins ’22.5, one of the organizers of the petition. “When we talk about any argument that’s about choice, we need to see it as a material reality. If you have two people that have very different material circumstances, you can’t ask them to make the same choice.”

Martins said the petition now has over 1,000 signatures. The petition encourages students to contact their representatives from the Student Government Association (SGA), as well as faculty members, to advocate for their prefered grading method.

“At Middlebury … everyone had the classroom to go to, everyone could go to the dining hall, have a meal, go back to the library, do their work. All the work that was happening had support, and everyone had access to a very similar structure of support,” Martins said.

Other educational institutions across the country have also been grappling with an unprecedented shift to online classes, and the consequences that shift has for existing grading systems. Several other universities have adopted universal pass/fail or similar systems, including undergraduate programs at Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Bowdoin College and MIT, as well law schools at Harvard University and Stanford University. Organizers at Yale University — another institution considering a shift to mandatory pass/fail — sparked the movement with their “No Fail Yale” petition.

At Harvard, dynamic debates and frequent stance reversals reflect the complexity of the fair grading movement on all fronts. The college’s undergraduate council — its SGA equivalent — reversed its stance three times in 24 hours on which grading system to endorse, The Harvard Crimson reported earlier this week. The latest update from the college announced that it would follow a universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system.

Middlebury’s SGA does not currently plan to endorse any one model, but will hear the different proposals at its Sunday meeting so that it can develop a survey to gauge student opinion.

Movements collide

The initial #NoFailMidd petition was met with opposition on two fronts: some students called for the opt-in system to continue, while other students believed a Dual A system — where every student receives either an A or an A- in each class — would be fairer.

The organizers of #NoFailMidd, who see it as their mission to generate conversation on equitable grading this semester, reached out to the students advocating for Dual A and incorporated their ideas into the new #FairGradesMidd petition, which outlines the strengths of both the universal pass/fail system and the Dual A system.

The initial #NoFailMidd petition changed to #FairGradesMidd in response to student feedback.

Meanwhile, opponents have voiced concerns, both in class Facebook groups and in Campus op-eds, about students being insufficiently motivated or not properly learning the material if they are not given the option of pursuing letter grades. There are also questions about whether graduate programs that typically require letter grades will accept pass/fail classes taken this semester, and that students — especially seniors — will not have the chance to boost their GPAs with grades from this semester.

Priya Kaur, ’22, Yasmine Signey ’22, Nellie Zhang ’23 and Maya David ’23 started a counter petition, titled #OptInMidd, describing the case for a continued opt-in pass/fail system.

Advocates of the Dual A system say it can operate as a middle ground between the two proposals. Students would still receive letter grades for their work, but the system would be more uniform and therefore more supportive of students in vulnerable situations, according to Chloe Fleisher ’21.5, an organizer who joined #FairGradesMidd when Dual A was added. Students applying to postgraduate programs, internships and jobs or looking to maintain scholarship eligibility would see their GPA positively impacted, while allowing greater accommodations for their new situations.

“This rewards students for the work that they have already done and for being able to work in really adverse conditions in a global pandemic, and basically creates, in my view, the most equitable system,” she said.

In an email to The Campus, the organizers of the #OptInMidd counter petition said they were glad that the #NoFailMidd organizers recognized its call for maintaining a grades-based grading system for the semester. “We also support a Dual A grading system, but with some hesitations,” they wrote.

The organizers of #OptInMidd expressed hope that under a system like Dual A, Middlebury students would adhere to the Honor Code and work for their grades. But they maintained concerns that students would abuse the system or not put in enough effort to learn the material.

“We believe that opt-in Pass/D/Fail encourages students to do their best since they are still graded in the typical manner, but can also provide a choice for all,” the #OptInMidd organizers said.

Calling the shots

Neither the updated #FairGradesMidd proposal nor the #OptInMidd petition were available when the academic continuity group last met on Thursday morning. But the committee did discuss the universal pass/fail proposal at length.

“We are most definitely interested in a solution that guarantees as much equity as possible,’  said Luso-Hispanic Studies Professor Daniel Silva in an email to The Campus. Silva serves on the academic continuity group as a representative for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion faculty committee.

“We will be meeting again early next week and will likely discuss the new developments and options,” he added. “Many of our students are facing tremendous challenges back home due to the pandemic that are unimaginable to many other members of the Middlebury community. My hope is that we find a solution that addresses their needs first and foremost.”

Some professors have already voiced their support for pass/fail grading. Allison Stanger, a Middlebury professor currently on sabbatical and teaching at Harvard, recently wrote an op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education advocating for colleges to move to pass/fail. The Campus reprinted that op-ed online.

“It is unjust to assume that there is a level playing field for students who have been forced to leave campus,” Stanger said in an email to The Campus. “We assume that it is so when we bring students together on campus, even though it isn’t the case, but it is a bridge too far to maintain that assumption in a global pandemic.”

Going forward, Martins, the #FairGradesMidd organizer, invites students to share testimonials about their experiences, sign onto the various petitions and contact their representatives about the changes they want to see.

“I think [students] are already being impacted positively through the process,” Martins said. “This is a grassroots movement … I hope it leaves this question of what can student activism look like, what can engagement with the community really look like? I think that it’s really been a beautiful exercise of community-making.”

Editor’s note: The Campus has published multiple op-eds on suggestions about grading policy. Read them here.

If you would like to submit your own op-ed, please email [email protected].

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