As is already painfully evident, this semester is going to be exceptional in every way. Students everywhere have been uprooted from their normal lives and are now dealing with the tangible threat of a global pandemic. Intense uncertainty has permeated every aspect of our lives because we don’t know how the coronavirus will impact society in the coming weeks and months. However, it is clear that things are going to get much worse before they get better. The virus will disrupt the lives of many of our community members and their loved ones—deaths and illnesses in the family, but also job loss, housing and food insecurity, and problems we may not yet realize will come to bear.
The pre-existing inequities in our academic system will inevitably be exacerbated by the challenges we are now facing. Students across the board, especially those who are disadvantaged, are facing unprecedented hardships that only compound the challenges they previously faced. For these reasons, this editorial board believes Georgetown should institute a grading policy in which no students fail this semester.
Several proposals for how students should be graded this semester have circulated among the student body. The GUSA executive, with the help of the newly-formed student group Hoyas for an Equitable COVID-19 Response, is currently working to gather feedback on its proposal for a Double-A policy. Other students have proposed other possible grading systems, aiming to relieve the anxiety felt by many students regarding grades.
We encourage everyone to engage with the ideas presented, noting that while we believe some proposals are better, none is without flaw. We laid out arguments in favor of and against some of these ideas, and hope that students and the administration consider what is best for the most students and hurts the least in this unprecedented crisis.
Optional Pass/Fail (Current System)
The current system, announced by the university on Mar. 14, allows students to take as many courses as they wish pass/fail,or continue with a normal letter grade. Students have until the last day of class to make their decision. We appreciate that this system gives students flexibility and allows them to keep letter grades if they are concerned that a Pass on their transcript would be held against them as a lack of effort by a graduate school admission review or an employer. An important facet of this system is that students succeed based on their work in a meritocratic fashion.
However, the current system leaves behind students who will deal with the harshest consequences caused by the coronavirus. Students’ abilities to function at school are often already hampered by situations out of their control—household income, support systems, mental health, and unexpected life events such as a death in the family. All of these problems will be heightened because of the outbreak of COVID-19.
Many students, despite wanting a graduate degree, will simply not be able to achieve good grades this semester. Having this be an option creates a false choice because students will be asked to submit grades or appear lesser than. It also simply does not assure that students will pass their courses. Considering personal crises and that students came into this semester anticipating having a wide range of academic and personal resources that are no longer at their disposal, the editorial board finds the current system untenable.
Under a Double A grading system, every student would receive either an A or an A- for all of their classes for the semester. The scheme for how to differentiate between an A and an A- would be up to the professor. This would allow students to have the grades to show to graduate schools and grade-dependent scholarship programs or student visas, would have every student pass, would give everyone a higher GPA, while still allowing for students who work harder in classes to achieve a higher grade. This policy currently has the most traction among the student body, but we would like to caution against it.
This editorial board sees Double A as unnecessarily arbitrary. Professors would be forced to devise a grading system that places students in one of two categories that were not defined before the semester began—not to mention that this is harder to do in STEM classes than humanities, for instance. It would still allow students with more resources at home to have a greater chance at getting an A rather than an A-, echoing the problems pointed out with the current opt-in letter grade policy. Double A also has all of the downsides of the Universal A system (outlined later), such as grade inflation possibly affecting the credibility and comprehension of a transcript. This system’s professor-dependent grading scale unfairly excludes students who studied abroad this semester, who would be unable to benefit from the potential GPA bump provided by Double A.
Everyone Passes, Can Elect to Keep Letter Grades
This system would guarantee students a default grade of “Pass” for all of their courses this semester, while still allowing students to elect to keep the letter grades they earned for any course. This means classes would continue as normal and professors would grade as usual. This policy makes a key change from the current system in that no student will fail, allowing students with difficult living situations not to be burdened with additional stress about the possibility of failing. This approach maximizes student flexibility in choosing what is right for them–such as keeping letter grades for graduate schools.
But here again, this policy will allow students in more comfortable living situations to gain an advantage by having a letter grade to showcase over other’s “pass.” However, that is not so different from the advantages high-income students typically enjoy over low-income students. There is not yet a proposed system that is completely fair to everyone’s circumstances, but at least under this proposal, students are empowered to choose what is best for them as individuals without risking failing a class.
Quite simply, this means every student would receive a “Pass” as their grade for each course they took this semester. This system is equitable in that all students would receive the same outcome for the semester. It seeks to mitigate the discrepancies felt in our experience of what may well become known as the “COVID semester.”
While this does not take into account the concerns of students who require grades to apply to graduate programs or maintain scholarship eligibility, the scale to which this is a global catastrophe is likely to mean that standards for this semester will inevitably shift. Already, Harvard’s medical school has said it would accept a “Pass” in prerequisite courses for schools with universal policies. Making the pass system universal takes away the burden to earn grades during these trying times and reduces grade inequalities. Still, it is unclear how most graduate institutions will regard grades from this semester, and this plan takes away the option of having letter grades. Whereas if students had the option to keep their letter grades (like in the previous option), or were assigned higher grades (like in the Double A/Universal A options), this issue could be avoided.
Some may argue that having everyone pass would disincentivize participation in class. But this is a narrow view, as this egalitarian model could also allow us to question the efficacy of grades at Georgetown. Instead of using grades as the only incentive to learn, we could, for once, take a break from being arbitrarily evaluated in a way that may or may not realistically measure whether we are learning course material. Instead, this semester could become an opportunity to learn for the sake of learning. What if we used this semester, which, if we are being honest, is already a wash, as an experiment to reach beyond the status quo? This could be an opportunity to both alleviate academic inequalities and to discover what could be possible in a learning environment where grades are not a factor.
With a Universal A grading system, every student, including those who studied abroad, would receive an A in their classes upon completion of the semester. This system is equitable in the sense that it does not disadvantage any students. If everyone only receives a pass grade, this removes the option of receiving a GPA for the spring, which harms students who were seeking to maintain or raise their grade averages. Contrary to the Universal Pass system, a Universal A grading system benefits low-income students and international students who do not have the luxury of hoping their scholarship or visa programs that require a minimum GPA would make an exception for the “COVID semester” when their very ability to attend college is at stake.
Another advantage this system offers is that graduate institutions and employers have traditionally viewed pass grades as tantamount to bad letter grades on a student’s transcript. Trusting that institutions and employers will be more accommodating because of the coronavirus requires all students, especially those who are disadvantaged, to put a lot of faith in a system that has been historically callous and unjust. Hurricane Katrina victims and Americans who went bankrupt during the Great Recession did not receive much leniency from these institutions and employers during those crises, which were seen as devastating and unprecedented at the time.
Similar to the Universal Pass system, there is a question of incentive to make a good-faith effort with schoolwork. But that is exactly the point of this policy: to give students the leeway to focus on more pressing matters during this pandemic. Students could still learn from their classes, but that should be a decision they make for their own benefit, not a requirement that could harm their wellbeing. The Universal A system may not fall under what is seen as “meritocratic,” but when has college ever been meritocratic? The very structure of higher education—from admissions, to academics, to social networking—is built on a foundation of advantaging students who have more resources rather than more intelligence. At this point in time, it is crucial that no one gets left behind.
Accountants and lawyers may be able to work from home during this period, but students whose family members consist of restaurant workers or small business owners, for instance, will be disproportionately harmed by coronavirus and its economic repercussions. No matter which option you find most appealing, this editorial board unanimously agrees on one thing: in the midst of a global pandemic—where many students will be experiencing some of the worst times of their lives—no student should live under the threat of failing their courses. By allowing students to fail this semester, Georgetown would be failing its students.
Image Credits: Alyson Hurt