As College Institutes Expanded Flexible Grading, Students Reimagine What Grades Look Like During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As College Institutes Expanded Flexible Grading, Students Reimagine What Grades Look Like During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The college announced on March 26 that it would expand its Flexible Grading Option (FGO) to all classes for this semester only, a decision that follows suit of other colleges and universities nationwide as they attempt to grapple with the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The FGO, which was first introduced this past fall to encourage students to explore the open curriculum without the burden of a letter grade, allows students to declare a course as pass/fail after receiving their final grade, provided that they inform the registrar of their decision to use the FGO during the add/drop period in the first two weeks of the semester. Students have four FGOs available for use over the course of their four years, though current sophomores, juniors and seniors are allowed three, two and one FGO(s) respectively, corresponding to the number of remaining years each has on campus. 

In an email sent to the community announcing the expansion of FGO, Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein listed three adjustments to the FGO policy to accommodate students during the coronavirus outbreak: every course taught during spring 2020 will be automatically elected as FGO; second-semester seniors have until May 22 to decide whether to keep a letter grade or convert to pass/fail, with everyone else having to June 15; and those who are granted extensions will have five days past the date that they receive their final grade to switch to pass/fail. 

The use of FGOs this semester will not impact the total number of FGOs a student has, even if they had already committed to using an FGO earlier, Epstein told The Student in an email interview. She added that individual departments will decide whether to count FGO courses towards major requirements — most departments typically do not allow FGO or pass/fail courses to count — but affirmed that “I haven’t heard from every department, but every department that I’ve heard from has agreed to allow courses taken for a Pass to count towards the major.”

The faculty voted for these changes to FGO policy in an “overwhelming majority,” Epstein wrote in her community-wide email. 

Mandatory pass/fail, in which no letter grades are administered but instead only “P” (pass) and “F” (fail), was also considered by both the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) and the Committee of Six, Epstein said. The college ultimately opted to extend FGO to all courses because it “would offer the most flexibility to all students.” 

“While Harvard and other schools have chosen to go mandatory pass/fail, many other schools have chosen to go to some version of an FGO for all classes,” Epstein said. In addition to Harvard, other colleges including Smith, Williams and Bowdoin have adjusted their grading systems this semester to incorporate mandatory pass/fail. In the NESCAC, Middlebury, Tufts, Wesleyan and Bates also offer some version of optional pass/fail similar to FGO, in which students can decide to either keep their letter grade or switch to “P” or “F.”

Other grading systems have been in conversation, if not between college administrators then amongst students nationwide. One group at Yale, campaigning under the name of #NoFailYale, began advocating for a universal pass system, in which every student would receive a “P” for every one of their classes without exception. Though universal pass advocates at Yale have not yet seen success — Yale recently instituted an optional pass/fail system like Amherst’s — students at other schools have sparked similar conversations, ranging from universal pass to a “Double A” option, in which students only receive grades of A or A-minus. 

Neither universal pass or Double A were considered by the CEP or the Committee of Six, Epstein said. Despite this fact, conversations about both options have occurred among the student body, in GroupMe chats, through Facebook posts and between peers. In one post in the Amherst College Class of 2021 Facebook group, Jacob Boehm ’21 included a transcript of an email he sent to Epstein in support of pass/fail.

“Personally, I think [FGO] is the wrong decision. I think the two better ideas will be either a universal pass/fail, or maybe capping the minimum grade of the B-plus and you can go up from there,” Boehm said in a phone interview. “The reason that’s a problem is that there’s going to be pressure to continue doing the grading system, even if it’s not something that’s really tenable for you.”

Boehm cited a recent email sent to pre-medicine students by Health Professions Specialist Rebecca Tishler and Health Professions Advisor Dean Aronson as an example of the pressure students might face in deciding between a letter grade and “P”/”F.” In the email, Tishler and Aronson cautioned students against opting to pass/fail a core course on the pre-medicine track if their final grade is above a C-minus.

“Please note that we are offering this guidance after frequent communication with peers at other Northeast liberal arts colleges as well as medical schools with whom we have close relationships but in the absence of official guidance or policy changes from the organizing bodies that manage the medical school application process,” the email read. 

Many proponents of FGO named concerns over graduate school as a reason to implement the system, echoing Tishler and Aronson’s sentiment that not all graduate schools will accept a “P” or “F” in certain courses. Emory Cholwell ’21, a commenter on Boehm’s post who expressed a leaning towards both universal pass and Double A, found that graduate school is an unconvincing reason to support FGO. 

Cholwell highlighted a recent policy from Harvard Medical School (HMS) stating that it would accept a grade of “P” or “F” only if the undergraduate institution that a student is coming from implemented a mandatory pass/fail system. In cases like these, students at schools with optional pass/fail systems — like FGO at Amherst — are obligated to count potentially lower grades that may not be reflective of their best work, Cholwell argued.

“It’s possible other grad schools will implement different policies, or maybe that HMS changes theirs, but if other [graduate schools]  follow HMS’ lead then students who want to go to grad school will be forced to accept a letter grade. In that case, FGO wouldn’t help at all,” Cholwell said. 

On the issue of graduate school admissions, Epstein noted that “it is my view that grades from this semester will be viewed in the context of COVID-19. Employers and graduate school admissions offices will take into account the situation in which students found themselves this semester.”

Graduate school is not the only area of concern in the grade system debate — issues of equity have also played a large role in the conversation. Both Boehm and Cholwell emphasized that the circumstances some students face at home place them at a disadvantage compared to others, and these disparities are then reflected through grades.

“Some students will be in environments where they have a better opportunity to succeed, where they don’t have to worry about their wifi connection or affording utilities [or] groceries, where they aren’t in a small crowded house, where they don’t have to take care of family members. These students are more likely to get a letter grade they’d be happy with,” Cholwell said. “FGO isn’t really a choice, it’s a dividing line based on who has the resources and environment to succeed academically in the middle of a pandemic. And this inequality will be recorded on our transcripts.”

Boehm added that if a student’s grade this semester does not reflect their usual work because of the extenuating circumstances they face at home, then making letter grades an option exacerbates inequality. “If grades don’t mean what they say on a transcript, then I don’t see why we should have them. If an A just doesn’t actually mean anything, then it just gives more of an advantage to people that happen to live in eastern time or happen to have better healthcare happen to have better Wi-Fi.”

Not all students disagree with the college’s move towards FGO, however. After receiving Ds as a first-year because of a lack of access to accommodations for disabilities, Bridget Carmichael ’21 worked hard over the next few semesters to recoup her GPA. For Carmichael, a mandatory pass/fail system would erase her accomplishments from this semester — a sentiment that she emailed to Epstein, President Biddy Martin and Dean of Students Liz Agosto. 

“I’ve seen students on the Facebook page saying, ‘you have another seven semesters of grades on your transcript for grad schools to look at.’ That is assuming all students had an equal opportunity to succeed all those seven semesters,” Carmichael said. “I have spent the past number of semesters working my ass off trying to improve the horrible GPA I have into a GPA decent enough to get into any law school … A pass/fail grading system does not allow me to show that progress. Forcing students into a pass/fail grading system is not fair because students should have the autonomy to decide how their academic achievements are being evaluated.” 

Carmichael added that the move to remote learning has unprecedentedly increased the number of resources available to many students with disabilities. 

“Course materials are more accessible now than ever at Amherst. There are now PDFs of all required course materials for students, which allow screen readers to read the materials to students. People with physical disabilities are not discouraged from attending class due to the inaccessible campus we live on,” Carmichael said. 

According to Epstein, student feedback was considered in the CEP and Committee of Six. “Please note that students are very passionate on all sides of the issue. I received many emails from students strongly advocating mandatory pass/fail, and many strongly advocating for universal FGO,” she said.