Editorial: Optional pass-fail system is not much better than grades

coronavirus classes illustration Sam Ford /THE REVIEW
The Review is of the opinion that UD should go to mandatory pass-fail in order to best serve the most number of students.

On March 26, the university announced, via an email from University President Dennis Assanis and Provost Robin Morgan, that classes would be moving to an optional pass-fail system. The system, while a good effort, has had a sour reception among many students, including the staff of The Review.

Our first issue is that these new policies are optional. While more than 150 institutions have adopted a new pass-fail system and the majority of them are optional, the most elite universities like Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University and Dartmouth College have made it mandatory.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University have all also instituted universal pass-fail policies. MIT and Michigan are President Assanis’s alma maters while Johns Hopkins is Provost Morgan’s.

For a semester where many students are going home to places that are well … not school, that means returning to a place that is not conducive to learning, let alone conducive to advanced research projects and discussions.

While some go home to nice, quiet suburbs with nice, quiet families and reliable internet access, many students go home to quite the opposite. The argument can be made that schools should not cater to those performing poorly but rather praise those performing well, and that might work when it comes to sheer laziness. But home situations are wholly out of students’ control.

Would-be top-performing students should not be punished simply because they do not live in an ideal home situation. Actually, for many students, college is seen as “a way out” of a bad neighborhood or dangerous home. So why would the university put these disfranchised students at further disadvantage when so many of our school’s success stories are from similar backgrounds?

International students with major time differences, students from rural areas with bad internet connections, students who have to work, students who have to take care of loved ones, students who lose loved ones, students who have kids themselves, students who are being called into military service, students who have to study for now-delayed MCATS and LSATS, the list goes on: They all face situations that would be improved with the implementation of mandatory pass-fail.

This optional status, furthermore, forces students that opt-in to explain their choice to future schools and employers. This impossible decision will now haunt students for years for something out of their control, something the university could have decided to help with but chose not to.

Second, the organization of the pass-fail system into several tiers has many of us, frankly, utterly confused. Our most pressing question about this is: Why split grading into four categories (high pass, mid pass, low pass, no credit) when the typical grading system has five, meaning anyone can simply look at the grading scale and deduce what kind of grade a student received?

The existence of “high pass” alone seems counterintuitive. Maybe some straight-A students will get a B+ this semester and decide they would rather have “high pass,” but it just does not make sense to rehaul an entire grading scale and make it so contrived simply because a small niche of students in very specific situations might want it that way.

Granted, there are major-specific requirements that necessitate different minimum grades that cannot be accommodated through straight pass-fail and many graduate programs that do not accept pass-fail grades. But this is an unprecedented time, as the university reminds us in all 37 emails they send every day, and some standards will have to be changed.

Overall, the staff of The Review is of the opinion that the university should go to mandatory pass-fail and do away with high/mid/low pass in order to best serve the most number of students. This is what the other elite institutions that we so strongly compare ourselves to are doing. Now is the time to fall in line and assert that we belong in that group.

The Review’s editorials are written to reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s staff. This week’s editorial was written by Victoria Calvin, Copy Desk Chief. She may be reached at VCalvin@udel.edu.

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