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  • Writer's pictureBillie Forester

What’s in a Grade?

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Columbia’s new mandatory pass/fail policy is unprecedented.

By Billie Forester

I found out about Columbia’s mandatory pass/fail policy in typical Gen Z fashion—not by checking my email, but through the intense debate that erupted in my Contemporary Civilization class group chat. The policy, similar to those adopted by many other universities, has been controversial. Back in March, I was surprised by the intensity of the debate—a change in grading policy seemed like a relatively minor disruption given the scale of this public health crisis. After listening to (read: scouring long rant-texts from) my peers, however, it became clear to me that the conversation around this policy holds profound implications for the purpose of higher education.

The American Council on Education (ACE) released a statement on April 16 addressing the need for changes in the evaluation of transcripts belonging to students impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The statement established the expectation that “institutional policies and practices should recognize that traditional inequities are exacerbated in the current crisis and that ‘equal’ treatment of students’ transcripts is unlikely to result in ‘equitable’ outcomes.” While everyone is currently affected by new challenges, from practicing social distancing to losing family and gearing up to face an uncertain economic environment, the students that are suffering the brunt of this crisis are predominantly those who already suffer the brunt of preexisting inequalities.

Many students have argued that a mandatory policy is the only one that will truly equalize this semester. An optional policy, in which students could choose whether or not they want letter grades, would still disproportionately harm the students struggling the most with these new challenges. At Columbia, many students already prioritize grades at the expense of their own health and personal life. In times like these, it is essential that Columbia students prioritize their wellbeing and that of their families over schoolwork, and that they receive their university’s encouragement to do so.

An optional grading policy would not relieve this pressure, but rather ask students to make an impossible decision: Take the pass/fail option and risk losing future opportunities to their more privileged peers, or stick with a traditional grading option and neglect other crucial responsibilities.

Illustration by Sahra Denner

Many students, however, have expressed frustration with their inability to opt out of the policy, worried about the impact that it will have on their GPAs, their chances of acceptance at graduate schools, and other future opportunities. Many graduate schools limit the number of classes students can have taken pass/fail as undergraduates. While it is natural for students to worry about how this policy will impact their professional and academic futures, many schools have already suggested that they will shift their admissions requirements in response to the massive disruptions this semester.

The ACE’s statement implored universities to establish more holistic systems to evaluate transcripts from this semester, acknowledge the substantial challenges that both students and faculty face, and communicate changing policies as rapidly as possible. Statements such as this demonstrate that many institutions will keep the unprecedented conditions of the time in mind when evaluating students’ performances this semester. If institutions like Columbia are implementing new grading systems to evaluate current students during this crisis, one suspects that they will implement new policies to evaluate potential students’ transcripts from this semester as well.

A second common critique goes like this: The new policy renders pointless the hard work that students have already put into this semester. This frustration is understandable. It poses some intellectual—even philosophical—questions: How do students measure success without grades? Is there even meaning in success without evaluation or recognition? How will we make our parents proud without a report card to stick on the fridge? I have definitely fallen prey to the temptation of viewing grades as the ultimate indicator of learning and effort. But I know that the two can be very different things. The college classes in which I have learned the most and worked the hardest were not those in which I earned my best grades.

This strange semester has brought with it immeasurable challenges, and these clearly have not been distributed equally throughout Columbia’s student body. (This is further impressed on me every time one of my classmates on the other side of the world makes it to a class at 4:00 a.m. that I had debated attending at 4:00 p.m.) But even in a COVID-free world, there are massive inequities among students that impact their ability to succeed academically.

The University’s swift action to mitigate the influence of inequality in grades this semester raises serious questions about whether they should be doing more to address this issue when there isn’t a global health crisis. Recent months have demonstrated universities’ capacity to adapt age-old policies during a crisis, demonstrating that they are more flexible than we all thought. These new policies can and should be a starting point to examine how universities can further adapt to better address the less visible but omnipresent challenges that their communities face every day, even without a pandemic.

In addition to exacerbating social inequalities, COVID-19 has forced classes to transition online abruptly, creating countless inconsistencies among classes. While watching my professors’ technological learning curves has been entertaining, it has also highlighted the fact that, while most of them are skilled teachers in a classroom setting, few of them have any experience with online instruction. To be fair, it is nearly impossible to lose a week and a half of classes, adapt half a semester of curriculum to an unfamiliar classroom structure in just two weeks, and then teach it just as effectively as you would have otherwise. It is uncharted territory for all of us. With this kind of academic and social instability, traditional grades would be relatively meaningless; there is no precedent for evaluation in this situation. The grading system relies on the assumption that an A will carry the same meaning from one semester to the next. Academic standards cannot be more accurate than rough approximations when success in March and April looks drastically different than it did in February.

Maintaining a grading policy without being able to maintain a standard of achievement is degrading to the education and grades that we receive under normal conditions. What can a grade measure when both the syllabus and the entire global climate shift dramatically in the middle of the semester?

Of course, there will always be those students concerned about how this policy will hinder their professional success. But it’s not the University’s sole purpose to help its students achieve their professional goals. College is more than a simple exchange of four years and a lifetime of debt for a better chance of getting a “good” job, whatever that means. It is true that most of us are not here just to advance human knowledge; we wouldn’t pay the exorbitant tuition to work our butts off in this pressure-cooker if we didn’t anticipate some benefits down the line. But we must distinguish between our reasons for attending college and Columbia’s reason for existence.

The problem with many arguments against the pass/fail policy lies in our willingness to jeopardize the greater purpose of higher education in order to achieve our personal goals. If you identify with students focused primarily on post-grad clout, then it should be imperative to you that Columbia has a broader aim, that there’s a genuine project of intellectual inquiry.


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