If GDS Institutes Pass/Fail, It Can’t Be Optional

It seems increasingly possible that GDS students, faculty and staff will not be returning to campus until the fall of 2020 or even later. There has been lots of talk about changing our grading system. Many are advocating for a pass/fail system over letter grades. Distance learning is a trial that is new to everyone, and traditional letter grades won’t work anymore. GDS must adopt a mandatory pass/fail grading system for the second semester of this school year.

Continuing a letter grade system comes with a host of equality issues. Not all students have access to the same resources and technology, and different students have to take on different amounts of responsibility at home. Using the exact same grading system without some serious reconsiderations will inevitably put certain students at an extreme disadvantage and disregards the values GDS is supposed to hold. It’s already clear that we must reconsider our system; we just need to decide how. 

With a system like optional pass/fail, students would choose whether or not to receive letter grades in each of their classes. This idea has the exact same issues as the letter grade system and potentially introduces even more problems. It’s important to understand that as long as colleges continue to receive and look at grades, they will factor into admissions decisions. I believe students with good grades will still get a better shot at college than students with passes. And because colleges still look at grades, every GDS student will face immense pressure to still receive them under the optional pass/fail system or any system that involves letter grades.

The letter grade system is not a viable option for several reasons. One of the main issues is that students with fewer resources and less time to do online school work will end up getting lower grades through no fault of their own, while students who have more resources and time will tend to get higher grades. Unless colleges universally decide not to even consider grades in the admissions process, schools will still prefer the students with the best grades. The letter grade system therefore fails because it favors students based on factors like socioeconomic status, health and family needs.

Now consider an optional pass/fail system. Two things could happen. Either disadvantaged students get worse letter grades, or they opt to take their classes pass/fail. In either case, colleges still prefer students with high grades. The system fails for the exact same reason it fails with the letter grade system. The same failure inevitably occurs with any system that attempts to incorporate letter grades. Optional pass/fail does nothing to support those who struggle more during the pandemic; in fact, it just guarantees they are kept behind the students with more resources. GDS will have to do better.

I understand that some students are concerned about not getting recognition for their work. It is still possible to find new ways of recognizing what students have already accomplished this semester, but we need to understand that there is more to education than grades. Students won’t lose commitment and interest just because they aren’t being graded. They are more than able to self-motivate; staying productive without being dependent on getting a grade is an important life skill that GDS already promotes. Mandatory pass/fail does not erase meaning from a student’s past or future work. At GDS, the benefits of learning extend far beyond grades, and all students will continue to receive the educational benefits of attending school and working hard. If students really can’t learn without grades, then GDS has a much bigger problem on its hands.

It’s also vital to remember that equality is the most important issue at hand. We simply cannot justify continuing to give some students grades when it’s at the expense of other students’ ability to succeed. If we want to actually be fair and have equal opportunity, we need to be willing to compromise. It boils down to the simple fact that mandatory pass/fail gives everyone a chance, while any system that tries to incorporate letter grades will only give opportunity to the students with the most resources. 

A mandatory pass/fail system is currently the best option, but even after GDS comes to a decision, the school should remain open to potential changes. This pandemic is evidence that we must be willing to make revolutionary changes to systems and institutions that have hardly changed in recent history. GDS has a responsibility to adapt to the environment. Optional pass/fail and all the other systems that still include grades are not real change; most students would still end up facing overwhelming pressure to receive letter grades anyway, and all the people hurt most by the pandemic would still be left behind. For the time being, GDS should stop using letter grades and institute a pass/fail system—but if they won’t make it mandatory, there’s no point in doing it at all.

Ben Joseph ’22