As Flexible Grading Endures for the Semester, Some Raise Issues of Equity

Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein announced on April 15, in an email to students and faculty, that the college would keep its current grading policy — an extension of the Flexible Grading Option (FGO) to all courses this semester — in place, despite calls from numerous community members to move to mandatory pass/fail in response to the academic challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. 

The FGO, which was initially implemented at the beginning of this academic year to encourage exploration of the open curriculum, allows students to decide whether to convert their letter grade into a pass after receiving their final grade, provided they’ve earned a D- or higher. The extended FGO policy was devised by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) and the Committee of Six, and on March 26, voted on by faculty, who passed it with “an overwhelming majority,” Epstein wrote in an email to students last month.

However, a number of students and faculty in favor of mandatory pass/fail continued to advocate for the grading system, which was not put forward as an option at the faculty vote, prompting “the CEP and the Committee of Six [to] consider once again whether to bring a motion to the faculty to adopt a mandatory pass/fail system for the spring 2020 semester,” Epstein wrote in her email. 

According to Epstein, many of the concerns around the extended FGO policy centered on inequities produced by the remote learning environment that has required students to return to a plethora of home circumstances, and which some felt unable to be assessed fairly through traditional grading systems. “Many of the calls for a mandatory pass/fail system are motivated by faculty concerns for students currently facing additional barriers to learning in the remote environment,” Epstein wrote. “A mandatory pass/fail system would ensure equality of outcomes where achievement meets a basic level.”

Even while acknowledging the benefits of mandatory pass/fail in this regard, Epstein noted that the Committee of Six ultimately found that the benefits of the extended FGO were greater. “Indeed, after long deliberation, the committee concluded that social class and circumstances were not necessarily proxies for whether a student supported mandatory pass/fail or wanted to retain the FGO,” Epstein continued. “As such, the committee felt that the flexibility inherent in the extended FGO approach responded to the needs and desires of the most students, as well as having other equity advantages.”

In an email interview with The Student, Epstein also emphasized the short time left in the semester as a key reason why they did not reopen consideration for mandatory pass/fail. “When the original vote took place, the faculty voted overwhelmingly for an extended FGO,” Epstein said. “Revisiting that vote several weeks later, so close to the end of the semester, did not feel fair either to students or faculty who were operating under the extended FGO policy.”

For many proponents of mandatory pass/fail, the decision comes as a disappointment. “There is a tremendous amount of inequality in the capacity of both students and faculty to excel at the moment. Fear and anxiety, lack of appropriate working spaces, childcare and family responsibilities, illness and fatigue all contribute,” said a professor who asked to remain anonymous. “To my mind, maintaining the option of a traditional letter grade is a mistake, and I would have strongly supported a move to a mandatory pass/fail system.”

Professor of English in Film and Media Studies Pooja Rangan, who had written a letter with Professor of Russian Michael Kunichika urging the college to adopt a mandatory pass/fail grading system in late March, thought that the decision to leave extended FGO erroneously prioritized “hierarchy” at a moment in where “we have to begin with equity first.”

“What we have now with the FGO is a kind of suggestion that hierarchy remains the norm, and that one can instead opt for pass/fail. I think that that does not necessarily accomplish what we needed to do at this moment, which is rid ourselves of the stigma of pass/fail,” she said. Still, Rangan indicated that she was quite satisfied with the college’s general response to the coronavirus: “I felt that there was great thoughtfulness on the part of everyone … the kind of leadership I’ve seen from Amherst is kind of rare in the higher education landscape right now.”

Chair of Film and Media Studies Amelie Hastie expressed a similar sentiment. “I recognize the difficulty of the decision, and that it’s difficult because we’re taking so many different disciplines and pedagogical styles into account,” she said. “My position really was that there could be some pressure alleviated on the part of students and faculty, thinking ahead to graduate school or med school, that then a student could say, ‘I didn’t mandate my classes to be pass/fail, that was a decision my college made,’ so that there wouldn’t be any possibility of anyone down the line reading into the decision to take one class pass/fail and three classes for letter grades or vice versa.”

Emblematic of the difficulty of the decision, the debate between policies similar to mandatory pass/fail and extended FGO has become a contentious topic in nearly all of Amherst’s peer institutions. For example, faculty at Middlebury recently voted against mandatory pass/fail after calls to reconsider the opt-in pass/fail system instituted in response to the coronavirus crisis, similar to Amherst’s FGO, while faculty at Yale reversed an earlier vote in favor of opt-in pass/fail in a second faculty poll, resulting in the passage of a mandatory pass/fail grading system. Amherst, however, notably diverges from many schools with opt-in pass/fail as well, as other institutions typically require students to decide whether to receive a pass before letter grades are released, whereas Amherst allows the decision to be made afterwards.

In her announcement, Epstein acknowledged the difficulty and complexity of the decision-making process, noting that “the Committee of Six is aware that no grading policy can fix the wide disparities in student circumstances during this extraordinarily difficult time. The decision not to bring forward a proposal to adopt a mandatory pass/fail system is not an easy one.” 

“The members [of the Committee of Six] asked me to convey that, above all, they feel that the best approach to evaluating student learning this semester is one that cannot be legislated, but which they urge the faculty to adopt,” she added. “That is, when grading, professors exercise the utmost compassion and flexibility — in light of the challenges we all face, and in keeping with Amherst’s mission and values.”