The Pass-Fail Debate

The Committee on Educational Policy is scheduled to consider fourth-course pass-fail today, and if a number of specific obstacles can be removed, the CEP will present its final draft to the Faculty. The danger is that both groups, by immersing themselves in this plan and its implementation, might ignore the broad, and vastly more important, issues it raises.

Fourth-course pass-fail neither emphasizes nor emphasizes grades, but merely redistributes them. A pass-fail plan like the one enacted this year by Yale, whatever its limits, is of a qualitatively different sort. The Yale plan alters the university's whole grading structure instead of giving students a single course in which to experiment.

At Harvard there has been insufficient discussion of long-range grading policy, and the current pass-fail plan should not become a substitute for that discussion.

There is no reason, however, why the CEP can't consider fourth-course pass-fail on its own merits, and later this year take up the more basic questions of grading policy. The plan now before the CEP would provide a meaningful stimulant to greater course experimentation, and should be adopted.

Implementing the plan poses several problems. Faculty members might understandably be reluctant to admit pass-fail students to their courses if there were enough regular applicants to fill them. The departments, which exercise authority over concentration requirements, might simply refuse to count pass-fail courses in a person's major. Lastly, it is still unclear just what the letter-grade equivalents will be for "pass" and "fail."

* The simplest solution to the first problem, and the only way to enact pass-fail on a truly widespread basis, is to allow students to postpone designating their pass-fail course until after their study cards are drawn up. Applicants for limited-enrollment courses would simply not say whether they intend to take them for a regular or a pass-fail grade.

* Policy on concentration requirements will inevitably be set by the departments, but they should accept pass-fail in a person's major to stimulate the same sort of experimentation within one's department that the plan encourages throughout the course catalogue.

* Making "pass" equivalent to a C-minus would obviously not be a very stringent requirement, but it would slightly restrict the number of students who could comfortably experiment under pass-fail. Because such a restriction is inconsistent with the plan's purpose, D-minus should be the minimum grade for "pass."

If fourth-course pass-fail is adopted, it will be a modest step in a sound direction, but it should not be allowed to obscure other, potentially more promising, lines of investigation.