April 7, 2020

Beware the Pass/Fail Fantasy

Debate over this quarter’s grading system misses the mark on the larger issue it raises.

As UChicago joins the nationwide debate on how universities should adjust their grading systems in the wake of the present pandemic, announcing this week the expansion of its pass/fail options, I’ve been struck by one feature of this debate in particular: The majority of arguments raised against the use of letter grades this quarter could easily be applied to other, more ordinary quarters as well. Students point out that in online classes, professors will grade according to vastly different standards, some much more harshly than others—but isn’t this the case with in-person classes as well? Professors question how they will be able to assess students’ learning in online classes—but do we really believe that letter grades ever function as especially meaningful metrics of our learning? Many argue that letter grades will discriminate against underprivileged students who lack adequate resources to succeed—but isn’t the entire establishment of grading discriminatory in this way?


These arguments might be more applicable to the particular circumstances of this upcoming spring quarter; one might reasonably argue that as classes move online and students are displaced from campus, the system of letter grading will become even more arbitrary, unjust, and discriminatory than it already is. These injustices, however, are immanent in the very system of letter grading—and as such, every argument against the use of letter grades this quarter ultimately functions as an argument against the institution of grading as a whole. Professor Chris Taylor, author of a recent op-ed in The Maroon arguing for mandatory pass/fail grading this quarter, made this explicitly clear in a recent tweet, writing that “the real point of my piece is grades are always dumb” [emphasis mine].


I agree with this underlying claim: Grades are, indeed, dumb. They tend to be arbitrary and unfair, they force us into competition with our peers, and they distract us from learning. As university students, we are all too often subservient to our GPAs, and we would do well to liberate ourselves, in one way or another, from the system of grades as a whole. But as we consider the discourse on the merits and drawbacks of switching to a mandatory pass/fail grading system, it is critical that we identify this underlying claim as the one that is really being made. Arguments against the use of letter grades this quarter are ultimately arguments against the use of letter grades as a whole, whether or not they are explicitly presented as such. Most importantly, we must not let ourselves be seduced by the fantasy that by switching to a mandatory pass/fail system for the quarter, we might make strides toward actually liberating ourselves from our present grading system: We must recognize that an attempted rebellion of this form would be completely ineffective, and ultimately counterproductive.


In one sense, this latter point is an obvious one. Switching to a blanket pass/fail system for the spring quarter would be an ineffective solution to the problem of grades because, at its best, it is only a temporary solution. When the present pandemic passes over and we return to campus, so will letter grades. But on a deeper level, switching to a pass/fail system of grading fails to effectively address the core of the problem posed by the establishment of grades. When Columbia University announced its decision to switch to a mandatory pass/fail grading system for the semester, Dean of the College James Valentini explained that “the playing field [would be] leveled for all” by the adoption of this measure. But the essential problem posed by grades is not merely that they make the academic “playing field” uneven—it is that they establish this metaphorical playing field in the first place, turning institutions of learning into battlegrounds in which students compete with one another for higher GPAs. An effective liberation from the institution of grades would not simply “level out the playing field”—it would destroy the concept of this metaphorical playing field entirely.


Even if we accept this metaphor of the university as a playing field, though, we must recognize that adopting a blanket pass/fail grading system would not really level it out for everyone. It would not generate the equity that students rightly call for, but only the illusion of it. Students who find themselves in especially adverse circumstances this quarter would still struggle to learn from their courses and to keep up with their peers. Covering these students’ grades for the quarter would not solve this problem; it would only hide it from their transcripts and from their potential employers. Here again, the argument that mandatory pass/fail grading would bring about educational equity fails to address the core of the problem posed by our present grading system. In equating quality of grades with quality of education, this argument implicitly accepts the notion that education and grades are one and the same thing—and if we really want to liberate ourselves from the institution of grades, it is precisely this notion with which we must do away.


Furthermore, the implementation of a mandatory pass/fail grading system for the upcoming quarter would be not only ineffective, but counterproductive: It would make it even more difficult to find the motivation to do academic work, and would thus inevitably result in lower-quality classes. For all the flaws present in our current system of grading, this system does have some meritorious qualities: For one, it keeps us motivated to do academic work even when we can’t yet see the payoff that will result from this work, or when we’re not feeling immediately inspired to do it. Some proponents of pass/fail argue that students who are truly passionate about their studies shouldn’t need grades to keep them motivated anyway. But a student who is only motivated to study topics she is already passionate about—who only makes an effort to read authors she already enjoys, and only bothers to engage with ideas she’s already interested in (and only does so when she’s feeling inspired)—will never be led outside her present interests, and will in all likelihood fail to develop them. In the aforementioned op-ed, Taylor argued that “suspending quality grades would enable our online classrooms…to become anxiety-free havens for criticality and creativity.” We must not allow ourselves to be deluded by such wishful thinking. Switching to a pass/fail system might indeed reduce our anxiety about classes, but so too would it inevitably reduce their quality.


Implementing a mandatory pass/fail system this quarter would therefore not only fail to effectively counteract the present system of grading, but would also rob us of the principal advantage offered by this same system. We’d remain subservient to our present system of grades, and yet we’d fail to reap the few fruits that it does offer us—we’d find ourselves in the worst of both worlds with respect to grades, as it were. As we enter into a new quarter in the face of a global crisis that has rapidly spun out of control, we must work to support those students and faculty whom it most severely impacts. But as we tune in to the nationwide discourse on whether universities should switch to a pass/fail grading policy and come to a decision of our own, we must constantly ask ourselves what this discourse is really for, that is, what it ultimately seeks to achieve, and we must not succumb to fantasies that a pass/fail grading system might function as a solution not only to our present crisis, but also to the institution of grades at large.

Marc de Fontnouvelle is a first-year in the College.