Georgia’s higher education leaders are ignoring the plight of the students who did not return home from shuttered classrooms to reliable internet, their own rooms or stable family situations conducive to learning.

Opinion: University System of Georgia deserves ‘F’ for nixing pass/fail option

In rejecting a pass/fail option in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the University System of Georgia is making a bad situation worse for students at its 26 closed campuses.

Georgia’s higher education leaders are ignoring the plight of the students who did not return home from shuttered classrooms to reliable internet, their own rooms or stable family situations conducive to learning.

Nor does USG want to concede that students will not be getting the same level of instruction, support or resources since all classes went online this week.

The explanation by USG for retaining standard letter grades was a string of greeting card schmaltz that ignored the magnitude of the disruption to students and faculty from this worldwide pandemic.

Twice in its explanation, USG said it didn’t want to sacrifice high standards. Harvard, Stanford and MIT are among the schools moving to satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading in response to the pandemic. No one is worried their standards will suffer as a result.

As one Georgia faculty member told me:

That someone at the USG has attempted to rationalize regular grading practices this semester with the empty rhetoric of "reaching higher, not lower" is utterly unfair and uninformed. I've taught at the university level for over two decades, and I have realized that learning is the product of multiple factors.

Chief among them is the learner's ability to focus on the material. I submit to you that all of our students are considerably distracted, and less able than ever to focus on their learning. Another factor, of far less relevance and motivation, is grading. Let's not confuse any learner's pride in their work with their interest in the grade assigned by someone else; research on the relationship between grades and motivation suggests they're not tightly tied.

Let's step back and consider that the USG statement also included such pablum as "We trust our faculty to teach and grade students effectively." Nothing could be more vapid or disingenuous: I'm a USG faculty member and while I appreciate this claimed "trust" I find it remarkably empty. Like most of my colleagues, I find the ongoing disruptions to our work and life routines to be barriers to both my students' learning and my own resourcefulness. Trust me: this term I will grade far less effectively than at any point in my career.

A typical defense for USG keeping letter grades is that online classes are not new, that thousands of college students take them. But the students who chose digital learning knew the classes were online when they enrolled; they felt they could learn in a virtual setting and had the necessary technology.

We have given professors -- some of whom have never taught online -- two weeks to master the medium. This is an overnight migration of thousands of courses that were never designed to be online.

A 2018 study found that technology problems --broken hardware, data limits, connectivity problems -- had greater consequences for students of lower socioeconomic status and students of color. And those technology problems were  associated with lower grade point averages. 

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Allison Stanger, a Middlebury College professor and now a visiting professor at Harvard, urged all schools to offer pass/fail, saying: 

In normal times, it makes sense to have individual faculty members determine fair assessment. But these are not normal times. Students were forced to leave campus on short notice and are now scattered around the world. Some will be tuning in from distant time zones, others from situations where a stable internet connection is an unaffordable luxury good.

The truth is that everybody would benefit from a pass/fail policy. Faculty members could focus on engaging students for learning in demanding new circumstances. Students would get a respite from direct competition with their peers to focus on both individual growth and doing their part in a common endeavor (a skill we are very much going to need in the months ahead). Parents could focus on loving and nurturing their children rather than worrying about how to assist them in navigating or gaming a new system.

A student-created petition for a pass/fail option aimed at USG has collected more than 7,000 signatures. The petition summons persuasive arguments that USG ought to consider.

Among the points in the petition: 

The reality is there are many classes that will not translate to an online environment, including (but not limited to) the following: studio art courses, labs, higher level math courses, philosophy courses, physical education classes, freshman year odyssey classes, foreign language classes, etc.

Many students will not have access to support resources such as academic tutoring that may be too difficult and/or expensive to attain without university resources. Additionally, many of our professors, while incredible resources and teachers, have little to no experience with using online courses.

The benefits of implementing a pass/fail grading scale are significant. This semester is unconventional and will undoubtedly see our stress levels rise as COVID-19 and the related systemic shifts continues to spread.

During this trying time, we think it is important that there is a degree of leniency with grades, which is why we think the opt-in pass/fail grading scale that is being adopted by more universities is so important. We have all worked hard this semester, but in the midst of a pandemic, it is vital that we remember that now is the time we should do everything we can to help people in any conceivable capacity. Especially for those with high GPAs this semester, apprehension regarding an opt-in pass/fail grading scale is understandable; however, some students with high GPAs also have socioeconomic disadvantages, and they will go home and could lose their high GPA because they do not have access to computers or other resources.
Thus, the most significant benefit of the opt-in grading scale other universities has begun implementing: Each individual student has the option to partake in this alternative grading scale based on their circumstances.

We acknowledge that some students need letter grades to be eligible for medical school or law school or otherwise and would not like to hinder their ability to seek higher education. We would like to request that all pass/fail grades provide an asterisk denoting at the bottom that the grade change was due to COVID-19, which prevented in-person instruction.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.