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Universal Grading Systems Dilute Education and Exacerbate the Problems They Claim To Fix

By Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport
Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall.

A discussion has emerged at colleges across the nation about how to grade students during a global pandemic. At Harvard, a group of students is advocating for the “Double A” grading model. (Not a surprise. What Harvard student wouldn’t want a semester of guaranteed As?)

Many students, both at Harvard and beyond, point to the first-generation and low-income communities as uniquely vulnerable to grading inequities exacerbated by the fact that students are no longer on campus and no longer have access to the same resources.

As a member of the FGLI community myself, I fundamentally disagree with the arguments that have been made in favor of any sort of universal grading policy. While I don’t normally care about grades and believe they threaten the important role of intellectual curiosity in the classroom, I feel compelled to write this piece because so much of the dialogue I’ve heard surrounding grades and the FGLI community has not originated from the FGLI community itself.

In addition, I’m concerned that a very small group of students connected to the Undergraduate Council appears to be advocating on behalf of the majority of students in favor of universal grading, whereas the majority of students I’ve talked to are perfectly content with the status quo and feel upset about this misrepresentation. In fact, I’ve heard that the UC’s internal processes were not totally transparent about the “Double A” advocacy campaign, and the subsequent UC survey sent out to the entire student body about grading preferences for the spring semester seemed to assume that students wanted some sort of advocacy on their behalf for a change to the current regulations. And during the final edit of this piece, the UC called an “Emergency Meeting” to endorse a grading policy for the College, yet the only two proposals up for discussion were both in favor of universal systems despite the fact that in the survey that they themselves conducted, more students expressed preference for an opt-in pass-fail policy than a mandatory pass-fail policy.

Building flexibility into a grading structure in a time of global crisis and mandating universality are two very different things. For example, flexibility might look like a small relaxation of the policies that restrict students’ ability to count pass-fail courses toward concentration requirements in an “Opt-in system” as University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Duke, and so many other schools have instituted. Allowing students flexibility seems logical and compassionate.

However, “universal” grading policies appear on the surface to be treating all students equally, whereas in reality, they do the opposite because everyone is in a different stage of their college careers. Some students are taking a relatively manageable course load this semester that they anticipate will provide a boost to their GPAs; others are loading up on difficult concentration or pre-med requirements. Some students must maintain certain GPAs for their outside scholarships and would have to alter their course load next semester if they can’t receive letter grades this spring.

Consider the FGLI pre-med student who struggled in their classes during freshman year and is on track to earn their first A at Harvard — in Organic Chemistry, of all classes. Consider the FGLI student who works two jobs at Harvard, and now finally, with the reimbursement of half of the student term-time work expectation, has time to focus on their classes while at home on equal footing with their classmates.

Consider any student — FGLI or not — who wants to maintain a high level of intellectual engagement in their classes, but knows that with mandatory pass-fail grading or the “Double A Model,” other students just won’t stay as engaged in the material alongside them during discussion sections and seminars. Of course, intellectual engagement and letter grades should not be mutually exclusive. In fact, I would hope that Harvard students would be just as engaged in their classes if they weren’t receiving grades for the term. But as much as I hope that’s true, I would be too much of an optimist to believe that.

We have been placed into a set of circumstances that leaves us with so little personal agency. Many of us cannot leave our houses; we cannot see our friends; we cannot live where we had planned to live this spring. Commencement has been postponed; summer opportunities are in limbo; the performances that matter most to us are called off. This is not Harvard’s fault. But in these circumstances that leave us with so little agency, I hope that we get to take control of the decisions that we still have some power over.

Let’s put faith in our incredible professors — so many of whom have already expressed their deep commitment to our continued education and their understanding of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in — to grade our work with kindness and generosity.

Universal grading systems undermine what matters most — our continued commitment to our academics and to our classmates — at a time where intellectual engagement has never been more important. Right now there is nothing that we need more than a reminder of what connects us all, our shared pursuit of knowledge.

There is no hope left for us when we throw in the towel and say, “we’re done trying.” And that hope, the hope that learning inspires, is all that we have right now. Unfortunately, that hope vanishes the minute grading becomes universal.

At a time when the production of knowledge has come to a nearly full stop — labs are scaling back experiments, the libraries are shuttered indefinitely, and field research is halted as a result of travel restrictions — let’s not slow the transmission of knowledge as well. Let’s not forget the fundamental reason we are Harvard students. Let’s instead find comfort in the transcendent magic of education. In order to achieve this, we absolutely cannot adopt a universal grading system, an unrecoverable mistake that would simultaneously forever dilute a Harvard education and exacerbate the very problems it claims to fix.

Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall.

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