Op-ed: The need for equitable grading policies in the face of COVID-19

With over 2,500 signatures and growing, Tufts students and the community have thrown support behind the petition to “Allow Tufts Students to take Classes Pass/Fail and Still Progress Towards Graduation” because of COVID-19. Due to this growing pandemic, students have been evicted from Tufts’ campus in the matter of six days. This eviction has led to serious hardship in the form of monetary burdens, lost educational resources and harder learning environments. While every student now has new realities because of the circumstances, transitioning to online classes and succeeding is impossible for many students. 

The New Reality 

Tufts is an institution that should accommodate students through the many factors that are critical to their learning. Due to relocation, some of the students who worked on or near campus have now lost their income on which they relied to pay bills. As a result, students have to find new jobs, many of which are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which does not align with a regular class schedule. Additionally, Tufts provides nourishing meals, and students who rely on these meals may not get the same access to food at home. If students are facing food insecurity, it becomes almost impossible to focus on academics. 

Furthermore, due to the transition, students may not have adequate technology at home. With regard to Wi-Fi, some students do not have access to a reliable internet connection at home, and their connection may randomly turn off during WebEx sessions, not allowing students to fully participate in class discussions. While there are a few services offering free internet to college students for two months, this is not enough as students may not have no-distraction, no-noise spaces at home. With regard to learning materials, students may have relied on Tisch reserves, but now students do not have these resources, and many public libraries have closed due to COVID-19. This could cause students to fall behind their peers who have access to these books and resources. Many students rely on in-person therapy or mental health resources that they could lose access to at home — especially detrimental at a time like this when anxieties run high.

Campus study spaces are imperative for students to focus on learning. Many students no longer have access to adequate study environments where they can focus on their learning, especially given the current self-quarantine protocols. Living with family comes with responsibilities that take time and energy away from student learning, such as having to care for siblings and do chores. Many students are also no longer living in the Eastern Time Zone and have to be awake at unreasonable hours to attend their classes, making it harder to focus and learn. This transition off of Tufts’ campus has removed students from the learning environment they have relied on to succeed academically. In addition, this crisis has resulted in countless other barriers worthy of administrative attention, such as lacking academic accommodations and on-campus housing deficiencies.

Equitable Grading Policies

Considering these barriers, we propose three solutions that would allow students to learn better by alleviating the stress of receiving a letter grade. The first, opt-in progressive pass/fail, gives students the option to take a course pass/fail this semester while still allowing them to progress toward graduation requirements. This progressive pass/fail policy would mean that students could choose to make their classes pass/fail, and these classes would count towards their graduation, major and distribution requirements. While students can regularly choose pass/fail, the fact that these courses do not count toward the completion of graduation requirements disincentivizes  students from this option. Progressive pass/fail would be optional, allowing other students to receive letter grades.

Secondly, expanding on the progressive pass/fail option, the University could also pursue an opt-out progressive pass/fail system. This system would make pass/fail grading the default for all classes but still provide students with the option to opt-out of this pass/fail grading and receive specific letter grades. The benefit of this system is that it helps destigmatize those who end up choosing to take their classes pass/fail by indicating to students and the academic community that pass/fail is a ‘normal’ option. It also still gives students the ability to take classes for letter grades if they wish, for example, to retain scholarships or meet GPA requirements for graduate school or graduation.

With regard to equity, mandatory pass/fail is a third option and is one of the most equitable solutions. This system would mean that all classes will be pass/fail and not include a letter grade. With the other options, some students may choose to receive letter-grades and others, some with less resources, would choose pass/fail grades. This could cause negative perspectives of the pass/fail students from graduate schools or employers. With mandatory pass/fail, the stigma of choosing between pass/fail and a grade-letter would no longer fall on socioeconomic lines. Everyone would receive a grade of pass or fail which allows for total equity with regard to personal circumstances. Smith College has implemented a mandatory satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U).

Not only do students support a more equitable grading policy, but professors as well, including Sam Sommers and Lisa Shin of the psychology department and Deborah Schildkraut of the political science department. Professor Sommers stated “As the Chair of the Psychology Department, I would absolutely support this type of flexibility in allowing students to count pass/fail courses toward degree requirements.” He also added that other faculty in the department supported this change. Professor Shin expressed similar support for the petition to add the option for students to take courses pass/fail and still have those courses count toward their major and university degree requirements. Professor Schildkraut, the chair of the political science department, has decided to make some of the work in her advanced seminar optional, such as short papers and online discussions, allowing for student flexibility.

Additional Policy Recommendations

Regardless of what policy is implemented, the current deadline to choose pass/fail is April 1 and spring break ends on March 25, which provides students with only five days of classes to make their decision. We urge the university to extend the pass/fail deadline based on the date of the policy implementation to give students an adequate amount of time to figure out what grading system is best for them. 

Many of Tufts’ engineering programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET), which makes it difficult for engineers to take classes pass/fail. If the Tufts administration supports progressive pass/fail, we recommend that they give the same benefits to engineers affected by these extreme circumstances.

Furthermore, it is very important that no matter which option the University chooses, Tufts should provide a statement on students’ transcripts describing the hardships that students have faced this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected students’ academic learning. The hope for this transcript note is that it will give employers and graduate schools context for the academic situation of the 2020 spring semester amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While changes to the grading policy may seem unprecedented, such changes are gaining popularity; many of Tufts’ peer institutions and other schools — Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon University and Smith College — have enacted similar pass/fail policies. The students at Princeton University and Yale University are also working toward more equitable pass/fail policies. Since Tufts is similar in academic caliber to all of these institutions, it is only reasonable that Tufts support its students in an equal manner. 

Moving Forward with Grading

Due to the student transition off campus and the COVID-19 pandemic, students are currently experiencing innumerable challenges to their academic careers. Tufts should do the right thing and implement an equitable grading policy for this semester, considering the hardships the circumstances have caused. Any other choice actively discriminates against students who do not have access to adequate learning facilities at home. No student should be academically punished because they don’t have access to the tools and resources necessary for learning.

Tufts has faced serious challenges over the past few weeks, and has had to make many difficult decisions. We also understand that this situation is unprecedented for everyone, which is why we hope that Tufts will implement one of the alternative grading options outlined above. This will increase educational equity, student health and general community wellbeing for Tufts students. The petition for progressive pass/fail has already gained momentum. If you believe that Tufts should make our grading system equitable this semester, sign the petition at www.change.org/tuftsprogressivepassfail.


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