Mason needs to implement universal pass/fail

In unprecedented times, no student should worry about their GPA.

The case for universal pass/fail grading

In a classroom, students are on as level a playing field as schools can manage: quiet work environments, quality internet access, minimal personal life distractions, and the opportunity to interact with teachers as closely as needed. It’s fair to give grades based on performance in such a controlled environment. 

But we’re not in classrooms right now – we’re quarantined at home in the middle of an international crisis. A universal pass/fail grading system is necessary to mitigate the obstacles that will inevitably put some students at a disadvantage during this period of remote learning. 

While students are home, some will have the privilege to focus primarily on academics and learn to the level they were learning in the classroom. But others may have to prioritize taking care of younger siblings also home from school. Some households may have poor internet connection or limited access to devices. Sequestered at home, many students are experiencing  debilitating anxiety, as relatives fall ill, or parents struggle with job insecurity. 

It’s impossible to predict and address every obstacle that might put a student at a disadvantage when learning from home. We can’t pretend this is normal, business-as-usual learning, which would justify normal grading practices. 

The only system that will effectively equalize every student academically is universal pass/fail – over the course of second semester, students should simply work to receive credit for their classes, with no effect on their GPA. 

Why “optional” pass/fail is not an option

While optional pass/fail may seem like a compromise, it only reinforces the inequity standard grading would cause during an international pandemic. Students who are well equipped for online learning- with adequate technology and few responsibilities other than school work- will choose to accept grades, and in the process, bolster their GPAs. For students who are struggling under the current conditions, there is clearly no “choice” at all. Such a system would succeed only in rewarding well-resourced students at the expense of their less fortunate peers. 

Take the all-consuming issue of college admissions. Selective schools which accept large numbers of applicants from George Mason will inevitably prioritize the admission of students who demonstrate continued academic success during the period of distance learning. Institutions like University of Virginia and William & Mary, with GPA averages of 4.3 and 4.24 respectively, will be pressured to maintain such high standards of selectivity.  If pass/fail courses are implemented universally, these schools will be forced to do so with nuance, and consideration of each student’s circumstances. 

Students cannot simply expect fair accommodation at the collegiate level, as was demonstrated by Harvard’s refusal to accept prerequisite courses taken “pass/fail” when a graded option was available. Therefore the onus is on high school administrators to balance the scales for their students. 

Calls for universal pass/fail grading have coalesced into a national movement. There are dozens of active petitions at American universities with thousands of supporters calling for “universal pass,” and #passfailnation is trending on Twitter. In most cases, student organizers are campaigning at schools that are already offering “optional” pass/fail courses. 

While the decision to adopt universal pass/fail grading is a drastic step, unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.