You go, mom:  Georgia Tech parent makes case for pass/fail amid pandemic

I am getting a lot of emails from unhappy college and grad students, mostly from Georgia Tech and the state’s public law schools. Those students are upset because the University System of Georgia has refused to offer a pass/fail option, as hundreds of colleges, including the most elite in the country, are doing. 

Grades are critical to law students because their class rankings influence their job opportunities. Grades are important to Georgia Tech because, well, it’s Georgia Tech. 

See my post about how the USG position on grading for the online courses now underway is at odds with many other places.

Most colleges have acknowledged that not all students have returned to home situations that support distance learning. Many are giving their students the choice of a letter grade or pass/fail. 

Local Georgia Tech parent Cynthia Stuckey sent me a note about her concerns, which I asked if I could share here. She hits all the key points about why a pass/fail option is needed, and I hope USG will consider her persuasive arguments. 

By Cynthia Stuckey

My oldest child is in his second year at Georgia Tech, and I remain concerned for a number of reasons about the refusal to allow a pass/fail option. 

First, while mental health concerns are certainly germane to all college students, Georgia Tech, in particular, has struggled to find its footing vis a vis appropriate resource allocation on the issue of student mental health. 

That the adequacy of the Institute's response to these mental health concerns has been written of in the AJC some half dozen times in the last 18 months only highlights the significant work to be done. Surely, in this time of national crisis, when the only thing of which most of us are certain is our own overwhelming sense of uncertainty, it should not be difficult to recognize the inordinate emotional weight under which many students are laboring. 

That the allowance of a one-semester accommodation in grading policy seems an insurmountable obstacle for the USG begs the question of how seriously our state universities are taking the mental health of students. This is particularly hard to reconcile with the reality that this generation of students struggles with depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders in numbers which research has shown time and again to be staggering and continually increasing. 

As a Georgia Tech parent, I cannot take the administration at its word that they are prioritizing an appropriate and effective response to what is accurately described as a mental health crisis when, in the midst of the turmoil through which we are currently living, a pass/fail option for one semester is too much to ask. 

Second, these students did not sign up for online instruction. They enrolled in advanced, university level courses of all description, from quantum mechanics and multivariable calculus to thermodynamics, astrophysics, and graph theory, with the expectation they would be taught these subjects in the classroom. 

While some subjects lend themselves more easily to remote instruction, and, while it may be true that many Tech students have the aptitude to learn these subjects in a variety of formats, none of them has asked nor contracted with the USG for a distance learning experience. 

Neither did the many professors who have had their curricula upended on 10 days' notice sign on for teaching to a webcam. My son and his undergraduate colleagues spent four years in high school working their fingers to the bone with the singular goal of attending an institution like Georgia Tech. 

They did not do this because they wanted to attend school online. They did it because they wanted to learn from the best and the brightest, which is absolutely what Tech offers them. But these students registered for spring semester courses with the valid expectation that their performance in these courses would be evaluated after a full semester of traditional classroom instruction. 

There are also myriad implications for students with disabilities, many of whom may require accommodations that professors and/or online platforms are unable to satisfactorily address in an abbreviated time frame. The transition to an online format was unavoidable and certainly no one's fault. 

It remains, however, egregiously inequitable for students to be held to the same performance metrics they agreed to at the beginning of the semester - which feels like eons ago to all of this at this point. It is equally unreasonable that professors should be asked to evaluate students against a rubric which was designed for a reality in which none of us are currently living. 

Finally, and by far most important, the transition to online instruction does not impact all students equally, and it behooves no one to pretend otherwise. There are students all over Georgia who struggle with housing and food insecurity and economic disadvantage. 

What end does it serve to hold these students to a grading standard that is completely and intentionally blind to reality? I struggle to imagine any conceivable circumstance under which it serves a valid interest of the state that we should will ourselves indifferent to the fact that not all students have a high speed internet connection, let alone their own computer, nor do they have immediately available resources to obtain either.

It is, of course, axiomatic that students for whom issues of housing, food, and financial insecurity are an omnipresent reality on a good day are surely in no better position to accommodate this level of unexpected change in the midst of a global pandemic, the likes of which is unprecedented in their lifetime and ours.

Sadly, it is an uncontroverted fact that the rate of poverty among families of color in the state of Georgia is twice that of white families. That the USG could ever be comfortable with a position that so obviously and inescapably disproportionately impacts students of color is painfully disheartening. It is alarming to even contemplate the idea that those charged with overseeing our public colleges and universities, all of which are plainly state actors, have not weighed the gravity of such readily apparent disparate impacts. 

The potential implications at law are so obvious as to be glaring. Legal considerations aside, it should bring pangs of conscience to anyone who shares in responsibility for this decision to know that any student, at any Georgia school, may see their GPA suffer (and perhaps their future career prospects as a result) simply and exclusively by virtue of their socioeconomic station. 

Perhaps my thoughts on this point amount to little more than a confession of naïveté, but I thought we, as Georgians, were better than that. 

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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.
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