Students, faculty consider alternative grading amidst pandemic

On March 12, President Elizabeth Bradley announced that Vassar would be moving to online classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Vassar, like countless institutions across the country, is still grappling with how to adjust grading systems in response to a change in learning systems. Amid questions about the effectiveness of online learning, college students are pushing their administrators to change grading structures for the spring 2020 term.

For example, MIT will not issue any letter grades this semester. Instead, students will receive either a passing grade, an incomplete, or no record, which will not show up on transcripts. Similarly, Smith College will switch to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading policy. Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University have made a pass/fail option available for all classes.

Vassar students are worried that a lack of effective discussion, in-person instruction and immediate access to professors will impede the type of intimate learning spaces that a Vassar education boasts.

Katie Spear ’20, with the help of Sumiko Neary ’20, Sophie Kaplan-Bucciarelli ’20, Hanna Stasiuk ’20 and Karina Norton ’20, started a petition encouraging the Vassar administration to move to a “Universal Pass” (UP) grading system. With a Universal Pass system, all students in graded classes would receive a “Pass” as their grade and full credit for the course. In the petition, Spear cites the difficulties of learning at home, as well as inequalities in the learning environments that emerge with at-home learning all as justification for enacting a UP system. The petition argues, “Completing this semester will be difficult for a myriad of reasons that are outside of students’ control, including the loss of safe housing, fractured support systems, and limited internet access.” Spear believes that it is unreasonable to expect students to complete their course work to the level that Vassar requires given the abnormal circumstances.

After seeing some concerns raised on social media in response to the Universal Pass movement, Darci Siegel ’20 advocates for unlimited Non-Recorded Options (NROs) in the spring semester. She developed a plan in conjunction with fellow peers to apply Vassar’s NRO system to the current situation. Siegel believes that the reason the NRO system exists—to allow students to explore new classes outside of their major without fear of damaging their GPA—can be applied to this time of uncertainty as we transition to online learning, as well as account for educational inequalities that accompany remote learning. The NRO system as it stands lets students set a grade threshold for a class they choose to NRO. If they reach their chosen grade threshold, their achieved grade will appear on their transcript. If the student receives less than their chosen grade but still passes the course, a P (pass) will appear on the transcript and will not affect the student’s GPA. Currently, students are allowed four NROs over the course of their four years, but may not NRO classes that are required for any majors or minors.

Siegel proposes two amendments to the current NRO system. First, any use of an NRO this semester would not change the number of NROs a student has left in future semesters. Additionally, she proposed that “students who choose to NRO courses this semester for within their major/minor will still receive credit towards their major/minor.”

Siegel’s proposal states,“This petition has caused concern for students who are hoping to improve their GPA’s and/or students who are applying to graduate school or anticipate applying, where a GPA is an essential part of their application and a passing grade could not properly demarcate “D” level work from “A” level work.” She believes that the NRO system gives students agency in a time of uncertainty by allowing students to choose their own grade threshold, as well as choose whether or not to NRO specific courses.

The Universal Pass petition argues that UP protects against at home-inequalities more effectively than unlimited NROs. The petition states, “The option to take classes Pass/Fail will only deepen existing inequalities. If Pass/Fail is optional, it gives future employers and graduate school admissions offices the opportunity to judge a student’s academic ability based on factors that are outside of their control.” This is similar to the argument put forth by the “No Fail Yale” movement, which is campaigning to implement a parallel Universal Pass system at Yale University. The “No Fail Yale” movement has stated that “having a difference between pass/fail and letter grades creates a stigma around choosing pass/fail.” Many students are worried that this stigma will fall unequally on students with a socioeconomic disadvantage.

Conversely, the unlimited NRO movement asserts that providing the option to choose how courses will be graded gives students “the agency to assess their own ability given the course type and the changing circumstances of their present environments,” as stated in the petition. Vassar’s Universal Pass petition has received over 800 signatures since it was posted on two days ago. In a recent update to the petition, Spear encouraged students to email professors with their preference for a Universal Pass system.

Siegel has focused on reaching the administration with her proposal as quickly as possible; she has the proposal to President Bradley, the Deans of Studies for each class year and Dean of Student Living and Wellness Luis Inoa. She has also reached out to the heads of each department. There is no formal petition for the unlimited NRO proposal, but it has been circulating on social media and through word of mouth, and Siegel herself has asked students to email their professors urging them to consider unlimited NROs for the spring semester.

According to VSA Chair of Academics Milo Mitchell ’21, faculty will be voting on the unlimited NRO system for the spring semester, with a voting deadline set for 4 p.m. on Friday.

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