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Dear Colleges, Please Let Grades Mean Something

Numerous colleges and universities are making all grades for this semester pass/fail or giving students an A regardless of their actual work.


Millions of college students will be closing out the semester from home, with online courses replacing in-person offerings. Due to the abrupt change, many schools are acknowledging the disruption, and associated changes in students’ circumstances, may lead to a decrease in academic performance unrelated to effort or intelligence, and are therefore instituting grading policies that provide appropriate understanding for the bizarre situation.

Many universities, including Georgetown, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, have extended the deadline for taking a class pass/fail until either the last day of classes or even a week after report cards are released. However, many student groups are not adequately satisfied with these modifications, and have demanded further concessions to the grading system. Two proposals have taken university students by storm: a universal pass/fail or a double A system.

The universal pass/fail removes any letter grades for the semester, taking away the student’s choice of allowing the classes to affect her GPA and earning a grade. The double-A system provides every student with either an A or an A-, at the teachers’ discretion. The idea was inspired by an English professor at Columbia University, who wrote an oped in the Washington Post, expressing her intention to give all of her students As.

Some schools have even caved into the requests, such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, all of whom have made all classes pass/fail, robbing their students of a chance to earn a grade commensurate with the expended effort.

It is perfectly understandable why these alternative grading systems are appealing to students. Sending students home to replace in-person learning with online is admittedly disruptive, and the stress of a global pandemic and upcoming economic collapse will cause unforeseen stresses.

Nevertheless, these radical grading proposals are not the answer. In fact, they render the semester, and the students’ work, meaningless by removing any differentiation to account for learning or effort.

By either rendering every class pass/fail or guaranteeing an A-range grade, the universities are incentivizing students to coast through the rest of the semester. For upperclassmen, many of who are taking courses with little relevance to future coursework, this will not be a problem. However, the freshmen and sophomores taking foundational classes will still have to put in the requisite effort to understand the material for subsequent courses, but with no reward for this enforced extra effort.

Further, many schools transitioned to online after two months of regular school. By refusing to differentiate grades, the universities are devaluing all of the hard work accomplished by the students in the first half of the semester.

Providing students the options to take courses either pass/fail or for a grade is the best of both worlds. The world is a really scary place right now, and everyone is aware of that fact. No employer or grad school program is likely to hold taking a class pass/fail against a student during a global pandemic. However, for students who wish to earn a letter grade, or who need this semester to boost a GPA, they would have the option.

Further, in this absurd and frustrating time, it is important to hold onto any sense of normalcy. For many students, coursework and working towards good grades is the one salvageable aspect of pre-corona routine. Georgetown University made the decision Thursday to keep the pass/fail option strictly optional, in spite of a popular student petition.

I hope more universities follow in their footsteps, allowing students the right to have their grades and effort mean something.