Remaking the Grade

Remaking the Grade

How the University's adoption of universal pass/fail grading polarized its student body.

Written by Sylvia Goodman // Designed by Luodan Rojas

This was not the quarter LaTesha Harris expected.

She planned to spend her final quarter at Northwestern with the Medill Investigative Lab in Washington, D.C. After the program went remote, she remained in Evanston and enrolled in classes she hadn’t intended to take. At the same time, her mother was hospitalized for blood clots in her heart and lungs, adding another layer of anxiety to a stressful and constantly evolving situation.

“I don’t even feel like I’m in school right now. Anything I muster up to give to my classes is just the maximum effort I can provide,” Harris says.

Of the 30 top-ranked universities by US News and World Report, all but one (Georgia Institute of Technology) made noticeable changes to their grading policies in response to COVID-19. Nineteen of those schools shifted to an essentially opt-in grading policy; students choose between a letter grade or pass/fail grading for most or all of their classes.

On March 31, Northwestern announced its decision: like eight other schools, it would adopt a universal pass/fail model (or “pass/no pass” as the University labels it) in which letter grades are not offered at all for the then-upcoming spring quarter.

The rationale behind the new policy was simple: this model would account for the added stress and uncertainties of living through a pandemic and protect and support those directly impacted by it. But while the pass/fail policy may be universal, its endorsement is not.

While many students, parents and faculty lauded the University’s decision, others have petitioned, complained and protested. Proponents of different grading models clashed in online debates and group chats. Beyond the policy itself, students like Harris noted that some professors didn’t completely accept the shift, grading the same way they would have during a regular quarter and holding a passing grade over students’ heads. At the same time, Northwestern has yet to announce the grading scale for the upcoming fall quarter, complicating student concerns around equity and their GPA.

The Rationale

In complaints lodged with the University and multiple other platforms, objections poured in; students sought to boost their GPAs while professors expressed concern about the level of classroom rigor. A number of universities are already facing class action lawsuits due to their policy changes. One suit against Drexel University claims both online classes and pass/fail grades lower the worth of their diploma, therefore tuition should be adjusted accordingly.

So, why did Northwestern, despite opening itself up to these potential consequences, move to a universal pass/fail model? According to Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Miriam Sherin, Northwestern’s administration knew that any decision they made would invite controversy.

“There were so many uncertainties about how people’s lives were going to move forward that we thought that this was the most equitable decision,” Sherin says. “No grading scenario was going to be perfect. No decision was going to be the preferred decision for all students.”

For many students, like Campbell Schafer, the Associated Student Government (ASG) chair of academics, the desire to make an equitable decision — one that didn’t favor one student above another — called for a universal pass/fail policy.

“I think there’s a huge disconnect between students who are really concerned about their GPA and other students who genuinely need pass/fail, because every student on this campus is in a different situation,” Schafer says. “Not everyone has access to great Wi-Fi or has a quiet place to work. People [might] have family to take care of if someone gets sick. That is something that plays into whether or not you could do your work.”

Harris, who is co-president of Northwestern’s QuestBridge Scholars Network, a student organization which strives to create a community and resources for first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students, says some critics of alternative grading systems during the pandemic insist that students who aren’t able to do their best during a remote quarter should just take a leave of absence. This, Harris says, is extremely inequitable and unfair to many FGLI students.

“People do come to Northwestern, as any elite institution, to have an in-person education and to learn amongst their peers and as a collective,” Harris says. “Taking that experience away from them is obviously going to deplete their motivations, but that doesn’t mean that their whole educational path or career should be put on hold.”

Because the COVID-19 crisis evolved so rapidly, Schafer notes that the University decided on a new grading policy swiftly and with little student input.

“[The policy] really came down to the faculty and the administration making that decision with a couple of nudges here and there from students. Our [ASG] president, Izzy Dobbel, played an enormous role in that,” Schafer says.

According to Schafer, limiting student feedback isn’t an unusual practice for the administration, though a quickly-developing case such as COVID-19 may have warranted it.

“[Dobbel] serve[d] [on the committee that discussed spring quarter grading] as the only student representative, which I think is a big problem with Northwestern,” Schafer says. “They love to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we take student voices,’ but then they only talk to one person.”

The Arguments

The day after the University announced its spring grading system, second-year Miranda Swartz published a petition directed at President Morton Schapiro. It called for a “post-grade opt-in Pass/No Pass” grading system.

“Where I was coming from when I made the petition was not necessarily a place of being against universal pass/fail, but a place of feeling like there was a possibility for a better solution that could serve all students, rather than leaving a few feeling like they weren’t being benefited by the system,” Swartz says.

Only one other of the top 30 schools previously mentioned, Notre Dame, has adopted this system. Other schools like Swarthmore College have enacted a similar “uncover policy” that allows students to “uncover” the letter grades behind the pass/fail and let it stand on their transcript.

The petition garnered 623 signatures just days after its publication. In the comments, students expressed their reasons for signing. One wrote: “As a senior, this would have been my last chance to improve my GPA and complete required courses. Now, I’m not sure I’ll be able to graduate.” Another, more simply: “The required P/F system is LESS equitable.”

While the petition clearly accumulated approval, many students also responded with anger and frustration in private Northwestern group chats. After creating the petition, Swartz began researching alternative grading methods for which students from other universities were advocating.

One of the petitions called for a 4.0-Pass/No Pass system. Students who received a passing grade were awarded an “A,” which counts towards their GPA. Petitions originating at Harvard University popularized this system, along with Double A grading, which ensures an A or A minus for the semester or quarter. After exploring all of these options and discussing the policies with different groups of campus, Swartz says she’s no longer sure opt-in grading is the most equitable after all.

Even with vocal support from numerous Northwestern petitions, administration was quick to reject these options: “You know, Harvard didn’t actually do that,” Sherin says.

In fact, an NBN analysis found that no university actually instituted either of these two systems, despite calls for them at Harvard, Rice University, University of Texas at Austin, Georgetown University and Emory University.

“The response made clear to me not only how privileged you are, but also that they are completely unaware of the circumstances that some of their classmates are facing. It speaks to a lot of the fragmentation of social groups on campus based on socio-economic [status] specifically.”
- Sarah Fernandez-Tabet, second-year

Swartz says she created the petition to start a conversation around the grading system. She felt her voice had not been heard when the final decision came down, and that universal pass/fail didn’t serve her and others well. Even as controversy continued, she believes she accomplished her goal — so she closed the petition.

“A lot of students reached out to me and told me that they had been inspired to reach out to the administration. And at that point, I was working with some other students on campus just to come to a better conclusion. So I didn’t want there to continue to be all of this arguing over that petition in particular,” Swartz says. “That’s why I shut down the petition.”

Swartz’s petition did indeed create controversy, especially in the Northwestern University - Class of 2022 Facebook group, one of the places she posted it in to gain traction. Many students felt that the call for opt-in grading reflected an inability to relate to those on an unfair playing field, especially during the epidemic.

Second-year Sarah Fernandez-Tabet says calling for opt-in grading and being so focused on grades during a time of international emergency is “selfish and self-centered.”

“The response made clear to me not only how privileged you are, but also that they are completely unaware of the circumstances that some of their classmates are facing,” Fernandez-Tabet says. “It speaks to a lot of the fragmentation of social groups on campus based on socio-economic [status] specifically.”

Some universities held out against universal pass/fail in attempts to remain committed to academic rigor. The University of Chicago Law School made headlines as the only “Top 6” law school that refused to change their grading policy during the pandemic, citing a desire to “continue to deliver excellent education.” After continued deliberation and pressure from students, the school finally decided to transition to a universal “Emergency Pass/Emergency Fail” system.

Many other arguments against universal pass/fail reflected students’ hopes of boosting their GPA during spring quarter. Some students suffered a mental health crisis early-on in their college careers. Others relied on GPA-based scholarships. Some fourth-year students were concerned they wouldn’t be able to graduate.

Even with these reasons, opt-in systems would only benefit those who are in a situation that allows them to actively choose letter grades.

Fernandez-Tabet is a supporter of a “universal pass” system, which goes a step beyond traditional pass/fail models. As its name implies, universal pass ensures that all students receive a passing grade and course credit.

Before her friend created a petition to adopt universal pass at Northwestern, Fernandez-Tabet had never heard of it, saying it was even “outside the realm of [her] imagination.” She and many other students feel these extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary adjustments to the status quo.

“What is anyone gaining out of failing a student right now?” Fernandez-Tabet says. “I feel like it’s reasonable that people aren’t able to do as much coursework or even be able to concentrate or have the motivation to.”

In response to the University’s unilateral decision-making and growing student antagonism in petitions and on social media, Northwestern University Political Union held a virtual debate: “Should Northwestern Not Have Implemented Pass/Fail Grading?”

“I think in a perfect world, students would be able to choose whether they want to have pass/fail grading or not, but the debate really helped me understand why universal [pass/fail] was preferable and why it’s more equitable.”
- Ellie Buckner, co-president, Northwestern University Political Union

Political Union Co-President Ellie Buckner says she leaned in favor of opt-in pass/fail grading going into the debate. She says she was frustrated by a lack of communication with students and felt the new policy didn’t benefit her.

During the debate, Buckner heard from students who would have suffered under an opt-in grading system. They were afraid that, since they would technically be able to choose letter grades, employers and graduate schools would judge them negatively for choosing the “easier route.” Like Swartz, hearing from different sides of the argument convinced Buckner that a system other than opt-in grading was necessary.

“I think in a perfect world, students would be able to choose whether they want to have pass/fail grading or not, but the debate really helped me understand why universal [pass/fail] was preferable and why it’s more equitable,” Buckner says.

Still, Buckner says the true ideal would be for all universities to adopt universal pass/fail, as Northwestern students will be compared to students from many different colleges after they graduate. And many of them are maintaining letter grades during COVID-19.

The Result

When the Office of the Provost informed the student body of the impending change, they assured that Northwestern “maintains its high academic expectations and commitment to rigor.” The statement left students wondering what this means exactly and what guidance professors received from administration.

To Fernandez-Tabet, some professors are not fully recognizing the difficult circumstances many students are in. She feels that the University should have made more substantial guidelines for instructors.

“I think aside from grading, it’s also important that the work that’s being done and the amount of work that’s being done or required of students is also adjusted accordingly,” Fernandez-Tabet says. “It’s not any better to just not be getting grades on things, but still have so much work that you are required to do just to get the pass.”

Numerous students, including Harris and Fernandez-Tabet, reported a higher standard to get a coveted “Pass” stamp on their transcript — higher than for a regular pass/fail class during the academic year.

“Professors are treating it like it’s A or fail, but it’s not; it’s A through D or fail. And they’re requiring more from students ... and being more punitive than they would be in any other situation,” Harris says.

While both agree that the current system is flawed, both Fernandez-Tabet and Harris say universal pass/fail is a superior option to opt-in pass/fail models and the usual letter grading system. However, as a growing number of universities begin planning for a remote fall quarter/semester, the longevity of universal pass/fail comes into question.

Sherin says that Northwestern has made no announcements regarding its fall grading system, but the University is returning to standard grading practices for the summer remote quarter. Fernandez-Tabet says this reversion is too soon.

“Nothing has changed, right?” Fernandez-Tabet says. “If we’re remote, it indicates that this pandemic is still having such a stronghold on our society and how we are functioning.”

Harris says if the traditional grading policy were applied to a remote fall quarter, it would be harsh on not only returning students, but particularly incoming first-year students, who are unfamiliar with campus resources and haven’t established support systems.

“If I [a graduating fourth-year] will really, really benefit from pass/fail, imagine a freshman STEM student who doesn’t really know who to reach out to for confusing questions, where to get resources,” Harris says. “Jesus Christ, that’s so inhumane.”