In the face of this unprecedented disaster, GDS must move to an optional pass or fail grading system for the second semester of the 2019-2020 school year. Top universities such as UC Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Barnard, Dartmouth, Smith, Harvard and MIT have already made the move to some form of pass/fail grading, with dozens of others surely on the way. The National Association of Independent Schools, of which GDS is a member, recently suggested that schools should consider switching to some form of a pass/fail grading system. In an optional pass/fail grading system, students can either opt into a pass/fail grade for the semester or choose to receive a letter grade. By making the switch, GDS will demonstrate its commitment to safety, mental health, economic equality and academic integrity.
Our grades for the fourth quarter won’t demonstrate our hard work or academic achievement; they will mainly demonstrate how well we are faring with social distancing and distance learning. Some students might not have reliable internet or technological access and therefore can’t spend as much time on homework or tune into Zoom lessons as effectively as students with greater access to resources. In a typical school environment, there is a baseline at which every student starts: attending class and having the opportunity to learn the material through homework and testing. Every student starts off on relatively equal footing in terms of access to lessons, but if high-reaching students want to go further, they can meet with teachers outside of class to solidify their knowledge. This is not the case with distance learning. The starting line for students has been removed as many don’t have access to these basic materials they need to succeed, such as effective wifi.
In addition to varying access to technology, GDS students have varying home situations. Different homes are under different levels of stress. As the unemployment rate soars to new highs and the stock market plummets to new lows, many GDS families are likely to be hit hard. For households with unemployed family members, stability tends to be much lower and stress tends to be much higher, meaning that some students have to complete daily school work under extreme levels of anxiety and with decreased support from their family. Some students could have family members who are sick, forcing them to primarily focus on caring for their loved ones rather than on school. These conditions will impede students’ abilities to complete work in their normal capacities. Even if these issues don’t affect a large portion of the student body, it’s unfair in these extraordinary times to continue a system that disadvantages students with fewer resources. This is a once-in-a-century crisis (hopefully), and we can’t continue the same grading policies that we’ve used in the past for synchronous learning.
A pass/fail system would take the stress off families and reestablish a baseline for students. If a student completes their work, they will pass. That way, our grades will be a measure of our perseverance and academic toil, rather than of how well we were suited in the crisis. There is no point in forcing GDS students to endure the rigor and stress of continued grading and finals. Our central focus right now should be staying mentally and physically safe. That’s what a pass/fail system will do.
On the other hand, we are halfway through a semester of hard work. GDS students have spent countless hours studying and working for grades that shouldn’t just disappear if students don’t want them to. This is why there should be an option for students to receive a letter grade. A mandatory pass/fail grading system would eliminate three months of diligent work, discourage continued commitment and hurt GDS’ highest-achieving students. While it’s true that a pass on a transcript could indicate poor performance, we should allow students to put their best foot forward when applying to colleges. Students who had a poor third quarter shouldn’t be stuck with those grades as their final ones. By having a pass/fail option, we are able to acknowledge our economic disparity and ensure that students with unequal access to resources are not left behind, while also letting high-achieving students demonstrate their hard work without it going to waste.
Note: Because this author has a large public profile outside of school, they have been granted anonymity for the school’s protection.