Verbum Ultimum: Credit Where Credit Is Due

Dartmouth's grading policy suffers from its own inconsistencies.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/10/20 2:00am

Dartmouth’s decision to institute a credit/no credit grading system has not been without controversy. Yet regardless of one’s views on the matter, it cannot be denied that the decision came from a well-intentioned place — primarily aimed at providing equity for the student body. At this point, the policy has been implemented, and it’s in our interest to focus on making the new system work effectively. 

What we find troubling about Dartmouth’s current policy is that in its vagueness, it fails to live up to its stated intentions.

One of the primary goals of the credit/no credit system was to accommodate the divergent challenges facing Dartmouth students in the midst of COVID-19 and the transition to a remote learning format. By establishing uniformity in grading, the College intended to level the playing field among students — minimizing the chances of vulnerable students being disproportionately maligned. However, there remain large disparities in how students are being assessed this term. Disadvantaged students will suffer as a result.

The job of defining what constitutes a grade worthy of credit has been left in the hands of professors and, as a consequence, uniformity of assessment has been lost. While some professors have set a D as the bottom limit for achieving credit in their classes, others have set passing grades at a B-. Students in different classes have to put in varying degrees of effort to achieve the same notation of credit. And those students facing disadvantages at home — such as financial difficulties, family commitments or a lack of reliable Wi-Fi — will be much less able to achieve a passing grade in courses with higher credit thresholds. Whether or not one agrees with the decision to implement credit/no credit, the current scattershot approach to assigning credit negates many of the proposed benefits of the policy.

It is true that in every term professors have discretion over their grading rubrics. But it seems a  misstep this term to allow for such flexibility. The ambiguous threshold for “credit”  subverts the equity arguments that the College has used in defense of credit/no credit. Within the current system, some disadvantaged students — unable to devote full attention to their school work —  may select themselves out of classes with high credit thresholds that would otherwise fulfill major or distributive requirements. They may alternately suffer undue stress attempting to achieve credit in more demanding classes. In either case, some students are put at a disadvantage, in direct contradiction of the College’s stated goals. 

Another perplexing aspect of the College’s credit/no credit policy has been the preservation of citations. In a typical term, citations serve as a marker of academic achievement — indicative of  great effort and success in a given course. However, this term, that same function runs contrary to the accommodationist program of the Dartmouth administration. Citations this term — more so than other terms — are going to be the reserve solely of those students who have the time and resources to devote to their school work. Those who achieve citations, even during this term absent of letter grades, will see their academic credentials gilded by the flattering words of their professors. To graduate programs or employers who take an interest in an applicant’s transcript, a citation would serve as a positive signal. Thus, those who do not achieve citations will, in relative terms, be unduly penalized. 

With a number of professors expressing the intention to expand the awarding of citations this term, this differential acknowledgement of student achievement will only be exacerbated. Citations, to a degree, may come to be treated as equivalent to an A grade, thus cheapening the meaning of a citation and expanding the cohort of students commended for their superior effort and achievement. With a greater proportion of students attaining citations in this way, those who fail to achieve them will, again, unfairly appear more lackluster.

Yet another confusing aspect of Dartmouth’s policy is the College’s intention to return to a system of letter grades after the spring term, regardless of whether classes will be held remotely or not. This marks a substantial departure from the College’s stated aims. The return to letter grading is predicated on the idea that, after ten weeks, the student body will have had sufficient time to fully adjust to online classes and other prevailing circumstances relating to COVID-19. Yet, this fundamentally ignores that fact that many of the challenges facing students will not suddenly evaporate in time for summer. Without any appreciable change in circumstances, Dartmouth’s current plan is to make a confounding tack in policy.

In the face of COVID-19, Dartmouth has chosen to alter its grading system to accommodate its most vulnerable students. The intentions behind this are commendable. However, the College has not fully devoted itself to this policy. Instead, the credit/no credit system is half-baked and leaves many of its stated goals unmet. The end result, unsurprisingly, is a situation in which few students are left satisfied.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.