A student’s refutation of the opt-in pass/fail policy


Editors’ note: This op-ed was originally shared as a Facebook post by the author. The original post has been adapted for publication in The Campus. 

After reading the open letter to faculty on the opt-in policy yesterday, I felt the need to respond with counter-arguments, drawn from both #FairGradesMidd communications around this issue and my own opinions. I’ve also admittedly talked way too much, virtually, with friends about this topic on both sides of the debate. 

I’ll start off with a concession:

Neither universal pass/fail nor opt-in pass/fail will be the best grading system. The perfect grading system simply does not exist when students have to quickly leave campus and move to remote learning while also dealing with the impacts of a pandemic. In any system, some students will benefit and others will not.

Now, onto my juicy hot takes in response to the open letter:

Yes, a universal pass/fail system will disadvantage students who could have used this semester to raise their grades. However, I also acknowledge that this inequity is by no means parallel with inequities faced by students who simply won’t have the time, resources or space to focus on courses which I have the privilege to enjoy. 

To the point that an opt-in policy respects choice: inequities dictate who has the power to make those choices. If some students have the ability to social distance, stay healthy and dedicate their normal amounts of time to school work, but other students do not because of circumstances at home, then that is inequitable. Theoretically, any student can then choose to pass/fail a course, but, in our current system, students facing challenges lose out on the theoretical “GPA boost” that the authors reference.

Not only that, graduate schools like Georgetown Medical School have stated that they will continue to “highly prefer” applicants who take all prerequisite courses for grades if given the option. So, a student who might receive a C while taking courses remotely — even if they normally earn As — has to make the catch-22 choice of taking a C so they can still apply to top-tier graduate schools, with a lower chance of success; or taking the pass and also lowering their chance of acceptance. 

More offensively, the notion that some Middlebury students “slacked off” during the five weeks we were on campus while others “worked diligently,” in the words of the letter’s authors, is blatantly false and uninformed by the reality of who Middlebury students are. We have a stellar graduation rate, high average/median GPAs and excelled in high school to gain admittance. Who among our peers are the slackers?

In their second point, the authors contend that grades serve as a form of motivation or underpinning to college scholarship. However, grades do not and should not underpin academic scholarship, nor should they be the sole motivation to engage in this scholarship. If the loss of a letter grade causes a student to spend less time on academic work because they suddenly lack the motivation, then we have a deeper issue to address about why students engage in academics. But I do not believe most students will lose motivation.

The authors also point to the further confusion that may arise from the change in policy. But just because a policy has been in place is no justification for that policy to stay in place, especially policies instituted without significant consultation with faculty or students. Furthermore, an unignorable student-led campaign for alternative grading policies has existed nearly from the very first day that the college announced its policy, so I for one was never operating under the assumption that this policy was set and fixed.

To call a poll of 1,843 students (roughly 70% of the student body) irrelevant simply because it included an option that turned out to be unviable for accreditation is a blatant error. Even when removing that option, universal pass/fail still has more first choice votes than opt-in. To insinuate on a clerical error that the student body has not vastly voiced support for an alternative grading system is a blatant and intentional misreading of the data leveraged to serve the authors’ own opinions while silencing the vast majority of students. 

In closing an email I sent to my current professors — something I encourage every student to do, no matter which policy you support — I said the following and I think it fits here as well:

“Though apparently some of my peers might argue that people should be allowed to ‘write their own stories’ about how they persevered  through this time, let those stories be about persevering over a virus by contributing back to society through extra volunteer hours or aiding their family when family members fall ill or lose their job —  not about persevering by getting that A in that one class because Middlebury continued to enforce artificial and inequitable grading standards.”

Mendel Baljon is a member of the class of 2021.