Credit/No Credit Variations and Universal Pass: The Debate Over Grading Policies during COVID-19

When students flocked to the train station and parking lots on March 6 to leave for spring break there were 211 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Almost two months later, that number is now at 1,092,815. Grading policies are just one of the challenges colleges have grappled with in these unprecedented circumstances, with Swarthmore moving from letter grades, to a Credit/No Credit policy with the option to uncover grades (soft CR/NC), to CR/NC with no option to uncover grades (hard CR/NC). 

The appropriate grading policy during COVID-19 has been the subject of widespread debate among both students and faculty. Students for Universal Pass (a system with no grades in which no students can fail) was launched and an open faculty letter in support of UP was circulated. Other students petitioned in favor of the option to uncover grades, and polls of both the student and faculty brought to light sharp divides among the Swarthmore community. 

Since transitioning online for the semester, students have expressed different interests and needs that no one grading policy could satisfy. Ensuring an equitable policy for students who may not be able to prioritize academics was the main objective for some, with disagreements arising over the extent to which various policies protect such students and the ability of other students to maintain their grades.  

On March 20, the college announced its initial move to a soft CR/NC policy. This decision was met with approval by some faculty and departments. Professor Krista Thomason, associate professor of Philosophy and coordinator for the Peace and Conflict studies program, in an email to The Phoenix on April 15 (before the move to hard CR/NC), expressed her support for the policy. 

“Although I don’t want to deem this any kind of official position, the PCS faculty have talked about this issue and we’re all happy with the college’s current [soft CR/NC]  policy,” wrote Thomason. “I would say that the current policy strikes a balance between two considerations: it allows students who are having difficulty working remotely the flexibility they need while at the same time recognizing that, as an educational institution, we are obligated to keep our curriculum as much intact as we can.” 

The day of the soft CR/NC announcement saw the formation of Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass. The group launched an online petition calling for the college to adopt Universal Pass (a universal “P” is placed on all transcripts), campaigned through a Facebook group, collected testimonies from students, and organized a letter writing campaign to faculty. 

The movement advocates that, given the extreme differences in home situations, a UP  policy would protect students from failing classes and alleviate stress for those forced to prioritize other needs. Olivia Robbins ’21 is one of the leaders of Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass.

“None of us have ever gone through something like this in our lives before, just the pandemic alone. And on top of that there are students who are currently sick with coronavirus, there are students who are caring for sick family members, students who have been forced to go home to abusive households, students who are choosing  between rent and groceries right now, students who don’t have access to electricity or stable internet connection, and all of those things make it a lot harder for students to perform academically as they normally would,” said Robbins. “So because of these extraordinary circumstances, I believe that our transcripts should reflect that.” 

Another member of Swarthmore Students for UP, Ramiro Hernandez ’23, supports the policy as he believes it the most equitable solution.

“Even though it has a lot of support from the student body, it’s not about whether it’s the most popular option, or who is benefit[ed] or not, it’s the most equitable one, because at the end of the day we have to stick up for those of us that are vulnerable,” said Hernandez.

Ali Gleaves ’23, whose family moves frequently, returned home from Swarthmore to a single working mother, a younger sister with medical problems, and no furniture.

“I don’t have any furniture right now. I’m sitting on an inflatable bed. I don’t have a desk. I don’t have any chair. I don’t even have plates or bowls that aren’t disposable. So that’s been a little tough … combined with the relentlessness of a workflow [that] hasn’t changed,” said Gleaves. “I’m living with a single mother and her job consistently tells them … today could be it [layoffs], that could be that. And my sister has some medical problems and her medicine is pretty expensive, so that kind of worries me too. There are all these things kind of on my mind that have higher stakes, than, like, intro to college writing or computer science.” 

His own circumstances, and the recognition that many other students are facing similar challenges, are the basis for Gleaves’ support of UP.

“Everybody is stressed to different degrees so … to really pretend that learning at Swarthmore, with all its resources, is the same as learning at home with a whole … spectrum of assets … I feel like [UP] counteracts that to make it more fair to … the students who aren’t in situations that are conducive to productive learning,” said Gleaves. “If we all have the same grades, just the P, there’s no numeric value attached … it sort of evens out the wrinkles of inequality.” 

Robbins believed the option to uncover grades attached a stigma to a CR, which would appear the equivalent of a bad grade, and that such a stigma would inevitably fall along socioeconomic lines.

“I think that the [soft] CR/NC current policy that we have, while it’s better than having normal grades, is simply not enough because it’s really not actually optional for a lot of students … the students who have the CR/NC on their transcripts are going to simply look less competitive than the students who don’t. And if you look at the students who are going to be struggling the most in these times, that’s going to fall along class lines, race lines, first gen[eration], low income, international students,” said Robbins. 

On April 16, after a faculty vote, the college announced the movement to a hard CR/NC grading policy. Before the faculty vote, Stephen O’Connell, the Gil and Frank Mustin professor of Economics and department chair, expressed his support for a hard CR/NC in an email to The Phoenix on April 14.

“I feel that the current policy [soft CR/NC] undermines the value of a CR, by making a CR seem like the equivalent of a bad grade (a thoughtful reader of the transcript will infer that a good grade would have been uncovered). This seems unfair to the students who need and deserve the protection of a CR this semester,” wrote O’Connell. “I am also sympathetic to student concerns that a hard P is the only way of being fair to students with greater hardships in accommodating the shift to online. But I don’t think it is desirable to take grading completely out of the hands of the faculty; and, more importantly in terms of student concerns, I believe that a hard CR/NC will really be the equivalent to a hard P in practice. In other words, faculty will avoid the NC designation if there is any basis whatsoever to do so.” 

O’Connell also noted that a hard CR/NC may assist faculty as they adapt to the challenges of working from home. 

“I also favor a hard CR/NC because it lightens the faculty grading burden. This would be particularly valuable to junior faculty with young children, who have been working a second shift at home every single day, managing the move to online teaching while essentially home-schooling their children,” O’Connell wrote.  

Gleaves believes, while an improvement, a hard CR/NC policy still does not formally provide protection to vulnerable students in danger of failing classes due to factors outside their control.

“Those people who may end up getting no credit — that still looks like a failure on their part, even though it wasn’t their fault. So even though nobody is going to know what you got if you got credit, which is good for them, if you happen to not get credit, then you’re still being punished for something that wasn’t your fault. The same way that grading would,” said Gleaves. 

Economics Professor Mark Kuperberg, who voted in favour of maintaining a soft CR/NC policy, believes the transition to a hard CR/NC places a greater proportion of students at a disadvantage.    

“The [hard] CR/NC is no better in terms of treating the students who are severely disadvantaged than the original policy,” Kuperberg said. “The only people hurt [under a soft CR/NC] are students who got a relatively low grade, want to keep that grade covered, and are worried that when they apply for jobs or grad school that employers or the grad school will know that they could have uncovered their grades and will penalize them for it,” said Kuperberg. “People who are hurt by [hard] CR/NC? Every student who wanted a grade for whatever reason. There’s almost no one materially hurt by the [soft] CR/NC.”

Critics of UP and the hard CR/NC policy argued that students relying on their GPA from Spring 2020 semester for applications to graduate school, internships and jobs would suffer. While some institutions, such as Georgetown University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, have announced they will be accepting pass/fail grades for Spring 2020 “without prejudice,” others have not chosen to amend their admission requirements. Despite holistic admission standards, concerns remain that students with pass/fail or P on their transcripts will be at a disadvantage to students with letter grades, and that institutions might not allow pass/fail classes to fulfill certain prerequisite courses. 

Sicheng Zhong ’21, did not support UP, believing it to undermine the grading system and place Swarthmore students at a distinct disadvantage.

“My reason against doing Universal Pass is that it is asking a lot of professors to fabricate grades. You can’t just change a failing grade to passing one … For example, if you have a student who attends classes regularly and another student just stops showing up in class ever, that student would still get a passing grade, and that doesn’t seem like that’s the right thing,” said Sicheng. “If we change [our] policy to Universal Pass while all the other colleges have not adopted this policy … that would put our students at [a] tremendous, tremendous disadvantage of having a grade, having a passing grade, that cannot be trusted by other schools.”

Ayleah Johnson ’22, believed graduate school would take into account the pandemic and respect that a covered grade may signify extenuating circumstances. While Johnson supports this protection of a CR, she also feels individuals should be afforded the opportunity to uncover their grades given the reality of competition between candidates from different schools. 

“Universal Pass, or covering the whole school, only works if every school does it. If only Swarthmore … is doing it, we’re still getting compared to students outside,” said Johnson. “As much as we want to think that Swarthmore is Harvard or something, we’re not. We’re still getting compared and competing against the best students at state schools and everything. Our Swarthmore degree only takes us so far, … and I do think that’s something we have to acknowledge and not try to pretend isn’t real.”

While Gleaves recognized these concerns, he believes given that pass/fail will only represent one semester, students are still able to amply demonstrate their academic ability.  

“This is one semester, the rest of your grades I feel like could speak for themselves, if you got A pluses in every class, except for this last semester of your senior year, I think that your place of employment would recognize what kind of student you are, recognize how hard a worker you are, [and] recognize the kind of intellectual achievement you are capable of,” said Gleaves. “I still feel like this issue is only an issue for the most privileged students who were able to be in an environment where they would have done well either way.” 

This was echoed by Robbins who firmly believed grades are not the only measure to demonstrate academic success.

“There are other ways to show that a student has worked hard in a semester and grades aren’t the only way … it’s a little frustrating to me that at Swarthmore, where we can lay claim to care so much about learning for the sake of learning, all of a sudden students are so concerned about their grades,” said Robbins. “If someone really wanted to show that they excelled in a semester, or they worked really hard, you can get a letter of recommendation from a professor, you can publish a research paper, you can do so many other different things other than just your grades … the idea that grades are the only measure of academic success just really doesn’t make sense to me.” 

Johnson pushed back against arguments that one semester’s worth of grades are not important over a four year college career.

“For me personally, I had a very tough time my freshman year. So not only did I already have mandatory pass/fail the first half, but then the second half, I was going through a lot of personal stuff and my grades were not the best. And so that’s a year off in addition to this semester now and study abroad. So really, I have only two years to do well,” said Johnson. “People are saying the point two grade difference doesn’t make a difference. Yes, it does … I don’t know what people have gone through, they don’t know what I’ve gone through, nobody knows.”

Johnson also critiqued the UP debate, which she feels has generalized students who are disadvantaged academically due to home factors — most often lower income, first generation, and international students — into a monolith. Opinions among such students are divided, some favour the protection of a hard CR/NC or UP as certain challenges have affected their grades, but others support the ability to uncover grades they have had to work so hard to attain. 

“I just think when people talk about … ‘it was a privilege you got to do your work over the pandemic.’ No, it wasn’t. I didn’t have the privilege to. If I didn’t turn it [a paper] in, that was gonna be a whole F, I couldn’t afford that … you had to find a way,” Johnson said. “There was a paper I had to do, it was only a four page paper so it wasn’t too long, but I didn’t have [any] internet so I was using the data off my phone to type … I was like ‘oh god I gotta get this in.’ Stuff like that I would not have done had I known they were gonna just pass/fail [us].”

Another concern with UP, as voiced by Zhong, was that participation and quality of work would drop without the incentive of grades, as students are essentially given a free pass for a semester. 

“Multiple of my friends have already mentioned to me that even under the current policy [hard CR/NC]  they feel like their motivation to do work has been dramatically decreased, because there’s essentially no difference between a C and an A,” said Sicheng. 

Shayla Smith ’20, a founding member of Swarthmore Students for UP, believed lowering standards of work across the board will not be a significant issue at Swarthmore. 

“We all have an understanding of what a Swarthmore student is; we joke about [it] all the time on campus, and we talk about it seriously too. So I just feel the first thing is that Swarthmore students are just not lazy. We have the issue of being overachievers,” said Smith.  

While Johnson believed the majority of students would continue to turn in work, she also believed the time commitment of many students would decrease. 

“I doubt that Swat students would do absolutely nothing … I do think people are still going to turn in work just out of respect for their professors. But I don’t think it’s completely out of the blue to expect a student who would have spent, you know, hours studying a week to just do half that … I don’t imagine people are going to spend as much time, but they are still going to put in effort,” said Johnson. 

Natalie Spangle ’20 experienced one of her professors instituting UP in a single class this semester, prior to administration’s move to a hard CR/NC. She believes the benefits gained by alleviating the pressure on students struggling to maintain any standard of work outweighs the cost of potentially allowing other students to lower their work standards.  

“It’s so individualized … everyone’s situation, it’s hard to kind of put an umbrella policy over it … I feel like [with] maybe Universal Pass … it’s better … not [to] penalize people who are not doing really well right now, than to risk … people who are slacking off, giving them a pretty good grade like a gift,” said Spangle. 

In contemplating Swarthmore’s approach to grading policies, Spangle also commented on the dual nature of the college brought to light by this issue.  

“The decision to not do Universal Pass — it’s just interesting because I think Swarthmore has a really strong identity, and I think that lies partially in two things. One of that is diversity and taking care of each other and community … [being] people that are fully fleshed out by the time you graduate … then the other side of that is academic rigor and intellectualism,” said Spangle. “I feel like those two things are really at odds right now, which they aren’t normally because we’re together in the same space, and I think that is making it really hard.”

While no further official changes will be made to Swarthmore’s hard CR/NC grading policy, the recent announcement has certainly not put to rest the debate over the values embodied by the COVID-19 grading policy question.  

Contributed Reporting by Bayliss Wagner

This story is developing and The Phoenix plans on further covering topics related to the effect COVID-19 on the Swarthmore community. For more of The Phoenix’s coverage on the COVID-19 outbreak, click here.

One thought on “Credit/No Credit Variations and Universal Pass: The Debate Over Grading Policies during COVID-19

  • May 8, 2020 at 1:42 pm
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    A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.

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