Why GDS Shouldn’t Rush to Pass/Fail

We are living in an unprecedented time. No one can argue that. Many systems and institutions must change in order to support their communities. No two people are experiencing this pandemic and its effects in the same way, so it is crucial that as institutions adapt to these difficult circumstances, their primary concern is equity. 

It is important to distinguish between equity and equality. Equality would mean ensuring that everyone has the same resources, which is virtually impossible. More importantly, everyone doesn’t need the same resources and support to thrive. Equity means individualizing care and giving each person what they need to be on equal footing with their peers. Equity means putting the emphasis on the person, not the system, and giving them autonomy.  

In an optional pass/fail system, certain students would benefit over others. There are so many factors that could disadvantage a student during this time like needing to care for younger siblings or grandparents, the stress of having parents’ jobs affected by COVID-19, having to deal with themselves or a family member getting sick or battling mental health challenges due to added anxiety or a difficult family situation. Students not fighting through these additional challenges would opt to continue receiving letter grades. And the other students would be left with a difficult choice: Do they choose pass/fail and suffer the bias of looking lazy and taking the easy way out from colleges and universities reading their transcripts that goes along with that choice, or do they add yet another stressor to their lives and continue receiving letter grades? 

An optional pass/fail system doesn’t work—but mandatory pass/fail is not perfect either. For some students, the letter grade system will serve as a source of motivation and normalcy during a tumultuous time. Additionally, some students feel like they have the potential to do better than their first semester grades, and want to keep building off their third quarter progress report like they would during a normal semester. Juniors in this situation are anxious to show an upward trend in their grades to colleges, or at least want the opportunity to show schools their third quarter grades. 

So if optional pass/fail is out of the question and mandatory pass/fail isn’t ideal, what should GDS do? Perhaps there is a third option, an option that gives students more choices so they can pick a system that works best for them, an option that is flexible so that if a student’s circumstances change, the school’s grading system can adapt to best support them. 

Give all students the option of locking in their third quarter grades as a “base.” No matter what happens the rest of the semester, in each of their classes, students are guaranteed at least their third quarter grade and students can choose in each of their to continue receiving letter grades or to go pass/fail. For students who want to continue to work hard to improve their grades, they still have that guaranteed floor, but if they improve their grades, the second semester grade can improve as well (as it normally would). 

This system would allow students who wish to switch to pass/fail to do so; those students who don’t want to adopt pass/fail but want to opt out of the stress of grades can freeze their progress report grade and make them their second semester grades; and those students who want to try to improve on their second progress report grade can do so, with the security of knowing that their grades can’t fall lower than those on their third quarter progress reports. In this system, students could choose to switch to pass/fail or their second progress report grade at any point, if the stress of the regular letter grading system becomes unsustainable. 

This solution enables all students to make their own choice with respect to each one of their classes to meet their individual needs, while decreasing stress for all and allowing students who have a situation that allows them to focus deeply on their school work reap the benefits of their efforts.

Liana Smolover-Bord ’21