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New Pass/Fail Grading System Celebrated by Some and Criticized by Others

In view of the transition to remote learning, Martha Denney, who will be stepping down from her position as Dean of the College on June 30, has announced that Haverford will offer students the opportunity to take all their courses pass/fail this semester. (The cutoff for receiving college and/or departmental credit for a class has been lowered to 1.0, equivalent to a D, rather than 2.0, equivalent to a C). Professors can still assign numerical grades if they so choose, but they will not appear on transcripts or affect GPAs unless uncovered. Though many students greeted the decision with a sigh of relief, others professed concern on the grounds that the new policy could hurt their chances of gaining admission to graduate schools. 

With this worst-case scenario in mind, Eyasu Shumie ’21 and several of his peers wrote to the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) on Sunday, March 22, proposing an alternative: the “double-A model,” which has been considered but not enacted at Harvard, Penn, Hobart and William Smith, Rochester, and other East Coast colleges and universities in past weeks in light of the extraordinary circumstances humanity now finds itself in. According to this model, students would receive either an A or A- rather than a P or F in all their classes; furthermore, their transcripts would be edited to include a brief explanation of the model and the rationale underlying its temporary adoption.

In his letter to the EPC, which he shared on the Haverford Class of 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 Facebook pages, Shumie—who could not provide a quote in time for inclusion in this article—outlined his reasons for supporting the double-A model over the pass/fail model.

“Under an optional P/F model,” he wrote, “students with ‘ideal’ home circumstances will be empowered to proceed in a ‘business as usual’ fashion, whereas students who for a variety of reasons cannot prioritize work will likely be compelled to take their courses P/F. When an institution sanctions this system, students applying to graduate school programs who took their courses P/F will be disproportionately stigmatized and, if required to uncover their grades, may be set back in their academic goals.”

Though Shumie’s letter was, for the most part, positively received on social media, it was not without its detractors. Isaiah Kriegman ’20, who commented extensively on Shumie’s original post, said that he feels that exchanging the pass/fail model for the double-A model is a categorically “bad idea.” Moreover, he said, he believes that proponents of the double-A model are not being honest with themselves if they believe that handing out 3.7s and 4.0s will have no adverse effects. 

If Shumie and his co-authors get their wish, Kriegman said, “most people would stop doing their work, or at least stop trying to do high-quality work. That’s the entire goal of a school like Haverford, to push students to do their best. It is wildly misaligned with the goals of the school and faculty. I’m shocked that the supporters of double-A won’t recognize this, but I’m not surprised. Their goal is to address inequity, not to evaluate the needs and goals of all parties. Of course there are other ways of addressing this inequity that won’t ruin the semester for everyone. That’s exactly what pass/fail does.”

Asked whether he thought Shumie et al.’s argument for the double-A model held any water at all, Kriegman was unequivocal in his dissent. 

“Strong no,” he said. “Actually, this is another source of dishonesty. The thing that disproportionately affects those students is the fact that we are having classes during a crisis. We all agree that life is hard for a lot of people right now. The pass/fail system does a lot to mitigate the disparities, and claiming that it’s the source of the disparities is wrong.” 

In an email, Federico Perelmuter ’21, who is in favor of the double-A model but unaffiliated with Shumie et al., gave an impassioned defense of his viewpoint. Making it clear that he was speaking on behalf of himself and no one else, he wrote that his dissatisfaction with the pass/fail model stems from his belief that it will “simply act as a cover-up that reifies and reenacts the exact same inequities it is claiming to solve.”

“The people that will uncover their grades will be of two kinds: those with sufficient time and comforts [such as] WiFi, food, stability, etc., to get appealing grades this semester, and those who need to boost their GPA despite not having an environment conducive to good grades,” he continued. “The former seem to me, in almost every case, to benefit massively, as they benefit from more lenient grading to get easy 4.0s. Meanwhile, those crushed by myriad difficult situations have to struggle to get a salvageable GPA even as they juggle whatever other extraordinary conditions have been brought on by this situation.”

Of the latter group, he said, “We are made to look lazy, or uncommitted, or otherwise bad because we do not choose to uncover our grades, [but] that is simply inaccurate and unfair. Everyone at this school except the privileged is forced to toil on even despite being forced to work, care for family members, et cetera. We are disadvantaged by either being forced to uncover crappy grades that were beyond our control or by refusing to uncover what we know is a crappy grade beyond our control, both of which make us look bad, while the richest, whitest, malest, straightest, Americanest at this school get an easy semester with really handsome straight As that can get them into a better grad program.”

Perelmuter’s issue with the assignation of value to work transcends the current moment. In his opinion, the severity of existing inequalities is such that academia should do away with the institution of grading entirely. Accordingly, he believes that arguments against grading such as the ones he has put forth hold up “both during the crisis and beyond it.”

“This crisis demonstrates to me, again, the absurdity of reducing individual conditions to numerical values,” he wrote. “I hope this is a first step to a real rethinking of said measure.”

Perelmuter ended his email with a strongly-worded call for the EPC to amend their decision, lambasting the pass/fail grading model as a “woefully inadequate Band-Aid of a proposal…offered [to] the marginalized members of a putatively solidary ‘Haverford community.’” Despite such negative feedback, however, the EPC—a bureaucratic body made up of Professor of Psychology Marilyn Boltz, Provost Fran Blase, Associate Provost Richard Freedman, Associate Professor of Religion Anne McGuire, Professor of Chemistry Karin Åkerfeldt, Martha Denney, Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Theresa Tensuan, Logan Chin ’23, Loops Torres ’20, and Registrar Jim Keane—has no plans to reconsider at this time. In response to an email query, Boltz, who chairs the EPC, provided an official statement attesting to the fact that the committee weighed many factors, including but not limited to variations in students’ ability to learn from home, before coming to a decision. Though she acknowledged that the pass/fail model is not a perfect solution, “ultimately,” she wrote, “the EPC did its best to address equity, to provide what was needed during an unprecedented moment in time, and to be as generous and flexible as we could with [a range of] considerations in mind.”

Further along in her statement, Boltz listed some of the EPC’s objections to the double-A model, which, she said, was brought to the committee’s attention only after she had sent its recommendation to President Wendy Raymond. 

“While the double-A model is certainly an extraordinary response to an extraordinary event,” she wrote, “providing ‘A’ grades to every student undermines any attempt to achieve at least some degree of academic rigor in this tumultuous time, a quality for which Haverford is well-known. The double-A policy could also have the unintended effect of devaluing the vast amount of faculty labor that went into restructuring courses for virtual learning and it could have the effect of devaluing the labor and dedicated effort students had put into their courses during the first half of the semester, as well as their continued dedicated efforts to engage academically during the remainder of the semester.”

Boltz summarily defended her position by providing a link to a Harvard Crimson article which reported that Harvard’s Undergraduate Council had declined to endorse the double-A model over the pass/fail model. Though Shumie, Perelmuter, and their allies might not share her view that the pass/fail model “is the grading model that is the most equitable and flexible to the many different needs of our community members,” it appears that it is here to stay. 

You can read the Educational Policy Committee’s full statement on the controversy below.

March 30, 2020 

Dear Caroline, 

Thank you for reaching out to EPC with your set of questions. We realize that other students may have similar questions and hope we can address them. Let me give you a different perspective from the front line, in the trenches, of attempting to keep Haverford academically afloat during this unprecedented historical event. On March 10, EPC convened an emergency meeting to discuss whether students should not return from spring break and, instead, stay somewhere safe in order to minimize any potential transmission of COVID on campus. Such a recommendation came from senior administration and, based on the advice of many other college constituents, President Raymond announced the move to virtual classrooms on March 11. During the ensuing days, EPC worked nonstop, almost 24/7, alongside IITS, the Library, and other staff members to organize and implement a platform of online instruction; gather a vast wealth of instructional resources; and a collection of faculty and staff experts to help all faculty members set up an online system for their courses. Largely through the extraordinary efforts of our IITS department, this was all accomplished in a relatively short period of time so that courses could resume in an effective manner shortly after spring break. Not all institutions were able to accomplish this no small feat. Haverford did. 

EPC next turned to the development of an appropriate grading policy for Spring 2020 courses. Before doing so, we engaged in extensive research: we reviewed the grading policies of dozens of other colleges and institutions; listened to input from students via the Change.org petition; a vast number of student emails sent to EPC, the Dean’s Office, and other staff members on campus; emails and input from faculty members. EPC evaluated all of this information and more, all within a very restricted time frame, in order to inform the hours of committee discussion that followed – all the while realizing that EPC was in the unenviable position of having to develop a grading policy that, a priori, could not possibly please every single member of the community. Hence, we agreed the most equitable solution was to develop a policy that would accommodate as many students and faculty as possible. 

In addition to providing academic flexibility to students and accommodating different students’ needs, there were other considerations that included: readjustments in faculty expectations, grading criteria, and assessments; the definition of any potential “Pass” grade; implications for the calculation of GPA; criteria for satisfying major/minor/concentration requirements, foundational General Education requirements; academic deadlines; equity among students; accommodating students who wanted numerical grades for postgraduate applications vs. those who wanted P/F grades alone; avoiding potential stigmatization; and attempts to maintain some standards of academic integrity. EPC considered students living on campus; those returning home; those who couldn’t return to campus or home; and those for whom home meant taking care of loved ones, or encountering distracting environments that were not optimal for learning. The committee was also mindful of instructors in similar situations with personal circumstances, such as childcare, that had to be considered along with learning new technology on the fly. How can hands-on lab work or fine arts courses be conducted remotely? All of these factors, and many others, were considered. Ultimately, EPC did its best to address equity; to provide what was needed during an unprecedented moment in time; and to be as generous and flexible as we could with the considerations noted above in mind. 

As such, the policy we developed provides students the opportunity to uncover grades if it is important to them; others can leave their grades covered while also meeting college requirements; and instructors can choose to grade their courses as strictly P/F in certain extenuating circumstances. In addition, we attempted to be very generous to students: defining a Pass grade as 1.0 and above; enabling students to see their numerical grade before deciding to uncover their P grade, and granting a September 4 deadline to do so; allowing all P grades to satisfy all major/minor/concentration requirements as well as all Gen Ed requirements; exempting current P grades as counting toward the four that all students are allowed during their time at Haverford; and noting our grading policy on all transcripts for this semester. (Many of these issues are addressed in the FAQ document that our Registrar and Associate Dean, Jim Keane, developed for you.) In short, the grading policy we developed was very intentionally designed to be accommodative, equitable, flexible, generous, and compassionate of the situation we’re all in. Feedback received from various students, faculty and staff members has been overwhelmingly supportive. 

As for the Double-A policy? EPC became aware of the Harvard student-proposed “Double-A” model after the committee finalized its proposal and sent its recommendation to President Raymond. Nonetheless, after reviewing this model, EPC agreed that it did not address the values of Haverford students and faculty. While the Double A model is certainly an extraordinary response to an extraordinary event, providing “A” grades to every student undermines any attempt to achieve at least some degree of academic rigor in this tumultuous time – a quality for which Haverford is well-known. The Double-A Policy could also have the unintended effect of devaluing the vast amount of faculty labor that went into restructuring courses for virtual learning; and it could have the effect of devaluing the labor and dedicated effort students had put into their courses during the first half of the semester, as well at their continued dedicated efforts to engage academically during the remainder of the semester. It is interesting to note that Harvard’s Undergraduate Council (comprised entirely of undergraduate students) did not endorse the Double-A model and stated the following: “If one thing is clear from the student testimony we were able to hear, it’s that there is not one perfect solution to the inequities created by the situation we find ourselves in, and any reasonable policy from the UC requires nuance, an abundance of student input, and clear leadership during a turbulent time,” Swanson wrote. “Unfortunately, we saw none of those this week.” See https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/3/27/uc-endorses-double-a/ for more information.

Again, EPC feels its present policy is one that is the most equitable and flexible to the many different needs of our community members. Students have the ability to choose what type of grade (i.e., numerical or P/F) they want for any and all of their courses. We remain committed to it and do not plan to reconsider our decision. Thank you again for reaching out to us, and we hope our response provides some clarity to the decision-making process involved in the grading policy we developed. Meanwhile, EPC is headed back to the trenches to join our faculty and staff colleagues; we still have several weeks of work that remain in the semester. 

With best wishes to you, 

Marilyn Boltz, Chair of the Educational Policy Committee

3 Comments

  1. Drew Cunningham April 4, 2020

    It should be noted, since the EPC (besides many others), in particular Prof. Boltz, wants to use Harvard as an example of what is “justified” at this time, that Harvard is not giving its undergraduates the option of uncovering their grades. Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Academics explained their decision in this article: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/4/3/harvard-coronavirus-claybaugh-grading-debates/

    Essentially, she noted graduate schools would most likely expect grades to be uncovered if they were uncoverable; however, if they weren’t (as they aren’t now at Harvard), then students wouldn’t be penalized for that. Haverford’s policy, of course, allows for the grades to be uncovered; thus, Haverford students can be penalized for leaving grades under cover of Pass/Fail.

  2. Silvan Sooksatan April 6, 2020

    lol I sign the Honor Code which is touted as the face and moral compass of this school and then the assumption is that “most people would stop doing their work, or at least stop trying to do high-quality work.” FOH, I came here to learn. Students will try their best given the circumstances and the school should trust its students. If the Haverford really cared about the Honor Code then it would give us the A/A- model.

    • Isaiah Kriegman April 8, 2020

      Why would doing less work be in violation of the honor code? There is no dishonesty in that. Are you suggesting that students who don’t achieve academic excellence are somehow not living up to the values of the honor code?

      I don’t doubt the academic commitment of Haverford students. My prediction is that many students would work less and I know it wouldn’t apply to all students. More importantly I was trying to echo what I heard from my professors and what the letter from the EPC chair states: “providing ‘A’ grades to every student undermines any attempt to achieve at least some degree of academic rigor in this tumultuous time – a quality for which Haverford is well-known”.

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