Moorthy: Make Spring Term Pass/Fail

Mandatory pass/fail is the fairest way forward.

by Gyan Moorthy | 3/21/20 1:45pm

In response to the spread of COVID-19, Dartmouth joined with peer institutions and announced that its entire spring term would be conducted remotely. This move, although disappointing for many, should be considered a necessary step in securing the wellbeing of Dartmouth students and residents of the Upper Valley. However, in moving to online instruction, the College must continue to prioritize the educational success of its students. One way to do this is to institute a mandatory pass/fail grading system for the spring term. Here, I echo the sentiments of The Daily Princetonian’s Editorial Board and of the student-run National Intercollegiate COVID-19 Coalition and urge Dartmouth to take that step. 

The grading policies currently employed at Dartmouth are fair only because a certain baseline is guaranteed to all students: sufficient food, heated housing, a high-speed internet connection, comprehensive access to scholarly books and research journals and the opportunity to participate in study groups or learn from College-provided tutors. The shift to online instruction disrupts this arrangement. While at home, many students will not have access to these essentials. Certain students will be especially affected by changes in arrangements for approved academic accommodations, while others living far from campus, in different time-zones, will be required to log-on at odd hours. Some will be preoccupied with paying bills so that they can continue living in their apartments or have hot water to bathe and gas for their stoves. Many will be expected to take over childcare for their younger siblings. The College has promised that Student Accessibility Services will work with individual students to best accommodate their circumstances, but the very nature of this pandemic precludes the possibility that this will bring all to the same level they would be at when on campus.

But the shift to online instruction will impact all students. None will benefit in the same way from office-hour brainstorming sessions, many will struggle to adapt to taking courses in an unfamiliar format and any student could become preoccupied by a decline in the physical or emotional health of their loved ones. As such, it doesn’t make sense to evaluate class performance in the upcoming term using standard metrics. A standard letter grade this term will not, for anyone, be comparable to that same letter grade in any previous term. 

In light of this, the only thing that can assure a semblance of equity is a mandatory pass/fail grading system. The College’s commitment to this policy will allow students to focus more closely on their studies, as well as on their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their loved ones. 

The critical aspect of this proposed system is that it is mandatory. This serves to ensure buy-in among students. Other systems, such as an opt-in form of pass/fail or expanded non-recording options, generate pressure for those students in less-than-ideal circumstances to continue to work as they normally would in order to remain competitive. Students taking courses towards their majors would likely hesitate to elect an option that is in their best interest for fear graduate schools or employers would discriminate against them because of it. 

There are, of course, drawbacks. By having transcripts marked with “Pass” rather than an “A,” some students may be put at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or admission to prestigious graduate programs. And some on the cusp of earning an honors designation wouldn’t have the chance to achieve the recognition they worked so hard for. Mandatory pass/fail isn’t a uniformly beneficial system. Yet the drawbacks of mandatory pass/fail seem trivial compared to the severity of the current crisis, and the benefits are too large to pass up. 

Dartmouth’s decision on this issue, informed by a faculty vote, should be announced in the coming days. The outcome is crucial for ensuring Dartmouth’s promise of quality and fair education to all its students. No student should be made to suffer more than they already will given the nature of the pandemic. Mandatory pass/fail ensures that those no longer on an even playing field are given their best chance. It further encourages graduate school admissions committees and employers to take the unusual circumstances of these times into consideration when making decisions that will greatly impact lives.

Moorthy is a member of the Class of 2020

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