Is Pass-Fail an Equity Issue?

Students petition University System of Georgia for pass-fail grading. System's leaders say they trust professors' judgment and students' abilities and will maintain letter grades.

April 22, 2020
 
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Students at Georgia’s public colleges and universities are petitioning for a pass-fail grading policy at their institutions this semester, arguing it is a matter of equity given the starkly different living and working situations students find themselves in following the suspension of in-person classes due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many colleges have moved to mandatory or optional pass-fail policies for the spring semester, but the University System of Georgia has resisted appeals for a pass-fail option, saying it trusts faculty to grade students effectively and that maintaining high academic standards matters.

“We have so many students who are struggling right now,” said Ciera Thomas, a sophomore at the University of Georgia and an organizer of USG Students 4 Grade Reform, a coalition representing students across the University System of Georgia’s 26 institutions, which collectively enroll more than 300,000 students. Thomas said coalition organizers have collected more than 2,000 testimonies of students describing the difficulties they're facing doing classwork remotely. The organizers say they've heard concerns, for example, from students living in rural areas with poor internet connectivity -- an estimated 1.6 million Georgia residents lack fast internet connections -- and from international students who are waking up in the middle of the night to view lectures remotely.

"We have heard from thousands of students and faculty who have been completing their schoolwork in fast food restaurant parking lots, waking up at 3:30 a.m. to attend lectures or returning to households affected by destabilizing forces like domestic violence or adverse mental health. We have heard from students who have been forced to break the state’s shelter-in-place order to complete their assignments due to a lack of internet access," Thomas said.

The move by many colleges to pass-fail options has helped assuage student anxiety in the mass transition to online learning. But it has also raised many still-unanswered questions about the implications for grade point average calculations for scholarships, graduate school applications and transferability of credits.

A spokesman for the University System of Georgia said Tuesday there has been no change in the system’s policy of maintaining letter grading, which was outlined in a March 30 statement. “We are confident our students will rise to the challenge, and the USG will do everything in its power to help them do so. We trust our faculty to teach and grade students effectively,” that statement said.

“In times of adversity, we should reach higher, not lower. Maintaining high academic standards is critical to the success of USG students now and in the future. Continuing letter grading for the final few weeks of the semester will allow faculty to assess the performance of students in the same manner as they always have,” the statement said.

Thomas said the system’s position is unfair.

“There are students who are struggling with so many things right now. They are rising to those challenges; they are reaching higher,” Thomas said. “For some of us that’s getting by day to day, whether that’s taking care of relatives or surviving in the midst of a global pandemic, we are rising, and we are trying, but we don’t think it’s fair to hold everyone to the same standards as they were held to before when this situation is wildly different than anything we’ve ever seen before.”

Thomas said USG Students 4 Grade Reform plans to submit a petition to the Board of Regents before the end of the month calling for a pass-fail grading option. Their action follows on other student petitions and actions by student governments at public colleges across the state. Student government presidents from 17 Georgia institutions sent a letter to the Georgia Board of Regents requesting a pass-fail option but were told there would be no change, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Law students at the University of Georgia and Georgia State University have petitioned for a mandatory pass-fail grading policy. Law.com, a trade publication for the legal profession, reported March 31 that at least 75 law schools nationally have moved to mandatory pass-fail grades for the semester, making Georgia State and UGA among a few outliers. ​

The petition from the Georgia law students argues that the "combination of catastrophe with the competitive structure of law school poses a severe risk of inequity." The petition argues that the use of letter grading allows some students to gain an advantage in class rank over other classmates who "disproportionately bear the impact of COVID-19" due to reasons such as "poor internet access, job loss, disruptive caregiving responsibilities, and the lack of a home environment conducive to uninterrupted study."

“In law school class rank actually matters, and it matters for your future employment prospects,” said Ross Harris, a third-year law student at the University of Georgia. Harris said COVID-19 has caused him to take on unexpected childcare duties for his 8-month-old child, whose daycare is closed.

Harris credits UGA's law school for adjusting the grading curve upward so the median grade the curve is built around is now higher. But he said a letter grading system, even on an adjusted curve, still compels students to compete against one another. In a normal context, competing with other law students for grades and class rank is fine, he said. But right now, "we're not on equal footing, and our grades are not going to be any reflection of merit whatsoever.”

"For someone to rise or fall in class rank during this semester is unacceptable," Harris said. "This is just not the time we should be using academic performance to determine someone’s job prospects."

​A spokeswoman for the law school at Georgia State declined to comment, referring a reporter to the state university system's March 30 statement.

Greg Trevor, a spokesman for the University of Georgia, said the university supports the system's decision to maintain the current grading system for all classes. Trevor also noted the decision by law school faculty to adjust the grading curve upward for this term.

"We trust our faculty to assess the performance of their students, as they always have, on work performed before and after our temporary closure," Trevor said.

"The university and the School of Law are focused on the continuity of instruction and completing the current semester," he said, adding that the school has dedicated $500,000 to support employment initiatives and assist with preparation for bar exams. "Together, we are committed to law student success and to assisting them during this unprecedented time."

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