Optional Pass/Fail at Woodberry is Not the Solution

By Austin de la Torre ‘20 and Luke Stone ‘20

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary changes to the way we operate. That is why we are all in school online, why many of us have been told not to leave our homes, and why all of us are concerned about how the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak will play out. Extraordinary times also tempt us to make less of ourselves–to use our time shut indoors to fear, agonize, and temporize until someone tells us it’s all over. To combat that temptation, institutions like Woodberry are trying to keep their students engaged in the hopes that they can make the best of what everyone–including faculty, staff, and administrators–can agree is a less than ideal situation.

Ever since Woodberry announced that classes would be online for the remainder of the school year, students had hoped that it would follow higher education’s suit and move to pass/fail grading for the spring trimester. Many were disappointed to learn on Monday evening that the school would instead opt for traditional letter grading with a 40/40/20 percent split between the fall, winter, and spring terms, respectively. Since then, a petition on change.org has accrued the signatures of 198 students (and counting) to move to pass/fail grading. The following is the entirety of the petition’s statement of support:

“During this trying time, it is imperative that each student is given a fair opportunity to learn and adapt without the worry that his grades will take a significant hit. Woodberry is a collective of people from around the world, it is because of this diaspora that we can not expect each student to adapt to online learning with ease. Students from different time zones and socio-economic backgrounds may find online learning much harder than many other students, and grades will not serve to assist each and every student. Institutions across the nation have recognised the predicament presented to their communities and have chosen to neglect traditional grading in an effort to serve ALL members of the community. A pass/fail system gives students enough incentive to attend class and do their work without expecting students to perform at the same level that they would if they were still on campus. Understandably, some students may need the spring trimester to increase their cumulative GPA, it is for this reason, and in the spirit of helping the whole community, that opt-in pass fail grades makes sense. Students are given the option to decide what they want and must take the initiative to decide what would be best for them. Traditional grading for all is not fair because it does not benefit all students, however, a universal pass/fail system wouldn’t benefit all students either. I implore you to at least consider the benefits of allowing students some agency in their final trimester, especially considering how much control we have lost due to the circumstances.”

Woodberry should not move to an optional pass/fail grading system for the spring trimester because it provides little incentive for students who opt in to engage their coursework this spring. The pass/fail movement argues against a false notion of Woodberry. They aim to depict it as a heartless institution that can’t take extenuating circumstances into account when it does.

Optional pass/fail grading, despite what its proponents claim, provides almost no incentive for students who opt-in to engage their coursework this spring. These students claim that they’re advocating for students who are struggling. That may very well be true for some of the people in the movement. Others are using this as a poorly-veiled effort to secure a spring slide. It encourages students to shoot for a 71, not to try to become the very best version of themselves. All you’d need to do is look at what happens to students in Intro to Bible, Woodberry’s only pass/fail class. Many students put off the work for that one more easily graded class and hope to merely survive it, not gain something from it. If we’re going to be doing work this spring, it might as well be graded work that we can get something out of. “But it’s all busywork right now!” boys complain. Students who say that aren’t being insightful, but impatient. We’re just over a week into this. If you’re complaining about busywork, RELAX. Have some trust that your teachers will find ways to make online coursework more meaningful as they adjust to it. Believe it or not, online learning is not only a challenge for us. Actually, it’s probably more difficult for teachers who had this whole thing sprung on them two weeks ago. They’re trying to keep us engaged for now, in the hopes that they can use the next week to design assignments, projects, and discussions that are just as interesting and meaningful as the ones we do at school. If your work still isn’t more engaging in a couple of weeks, reach out to your advisor or teacher to talk about it.

If supporters of optional pass/fail aren’t saying it’s busywork, they are, as they usually are, saying that Woodberry doesn’t have enough empathy. They claim that letter-graded assignments this spring are going to have a disproportionate impact on “students from different time zones and different socio-economic backgrounds.” This would have been true if Woodberry hadn’t issued any guidance on how grading would change with online classes. The time zone piece is thrown into the equation to expand a very small subset of students who could potentially be disadvantaged by not having pass/fail grading. However, teachers have been instructed to record all of their online lessons and post them to CANVAS. Additionally, the new grading manual says, “no boy’s grade will ever suffer because of technology issues or because time differences make it difficult for him to join live classes.” Living in a different time zone is not enough of a hardship to justify a move to pass/fail grading. Students can see what happened live and send their teachers emails to ask questions, or set up a consultation for a time that works for both, which there is with almost all time zones, provided one party is willing to stay up until 9 PM. Now having a difficult home situation, a sick family member, or a socio-economic position that forces students to work is absolutely a valid hardship. Those students absolutely deserve to have the context of their circumstances taken into account. Essentially, those advocating for a pass/fail system argue that letter grading is too rigid for those who are struggling when the modified grading scale that already exists will “allow for those differences.”

That sentence is meant to leave the door open for teachers to grade with compassion. If a student has a legitimate reason that he’s lagging behind with his work, teachers will recognize that and will take that into account when determining what grade he’s earned for the trimester. It’s doubtful that a Woodberry faculty member would hear about someone’s hardship and tank the year-long grade despite it. The school is trying to tell us what they can’t officially say– “if you’re in a rough spot, we’ll do our best to help fish you out academically.” Even if the year-long grade does go down–which it’s very unlikely that it would–its result would be minimized by the 40/40/20 split. If pass/fail’s supporters are worried about putting teachers in the position to decide between maybe a B+ and a B for a student who’s struggling, wouldn’t it be even more worrisome to put teachers in a position to decide between a pass and a fail for a student in need? It’s not fair to students who have an actual hardship to move to an optional pass/fail because it gives students, who have no excuse other than a desire not to work hard, a chance to slack off for the spring. Many of the students bashing the school for this decision are doing what they usually do–constructing an overly bureaucratic picture of the “Woodberry system,” by ignoring the plentiful compassion and empathy that exists and will only be heightened by this global crisis. Woodberry is not a faceless, apathetic institution. It is a community of people who have real emotion, empathy, and compassion in the best of circumstances and who have dedicated their lives to putting us in a position to reach more than our fullest potential – a pursuit rightfully fraught with hardship. Certainly we can trust those people to act on those feelings just as much, if not more than they usually do in these trying times.

Categories: Opinion

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