Opinion: Make classes mandatory pass/fail this semester

Ethan Hwang, Managing Editor

In the midst of a national crisis, the details in life seem to melt away. Communities are coming together to donate masks to healthcare workers. Young people are sacrificing their social lives to flatten the curve and protect the elderly. Neighbors are sharing supplies to help everyone get through emergencies.

So, in the midst of this national crisis, why are we students still stressing over our grades?

While in-person classes remain canceled, the Palo Alto High School administration is yet to make an announcement about how second semester grades will be recorded. In the meantime, the district has placed a ban on graded assignments which will last until the end of Spring Break. But for a school that shuts down Infinite Campus over winter break to keep students from stressing over first semester grades, it seems like much more could be done, and the lack of concrete guidelines with regards to grades only increases the stress induced by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Colleges and universities such as Columbia and Barnard have already moved all classes to a pass/fail grading system. UC Berkeley, Smith, Duke, MIT and Vanderbilt either gave students the option to move their classes to pass/fail, or are otherwise doing something similar. Even some private high schools such as Exeter Academy and Phillips Academy — both schools with geographically diverse student bodies — have already adopted a pass/fail grading system for the spring term in light of a shift to online classes.

All high schools in areas hard hit by COVID-19 such as Palo Alto should follow in their footsteps, and make all classes this semester mandatory pass/fail. That would mean instead of receiving letter grades in June, each student would receive grades of “pass” or “fail” in every class. A pass would not affect a student’s GPA, while a fail would.

Locally, the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted our community in countless ways. The district announced the cancellation of all in-person classes on March 13. Libraries and City Hall closed soon after, followed by the closure of non-essential businesses and a shelter in place order by the county announced March 16. The first case of the disease within the district was confirmed March 17.

When we’re threatened by a public health crisis, grades should be the last thing on our minds. In the weeks leading up to school closure, some students chose not to come to school to avoid getting infected and endangering the elderly that they live with. After school closed, teachers were forced to change their curriculum and students faced confusion while adapting to online learning. Given all this, to what extent would our grades be an accurate assessment of our progress this semester anyway?

As COVID-19 has led to the closure of most schools across the country and the cancellation of many standardized test dates, some colleges have already announced that they will be more understanding while evaluating applications next fall in light of these special circumstances. Harvard College announced Friday that juniors will “not be disadvantaged” if they are unable to submit Advanced Placement exam scores or SAT subject test results. A letter from the University of Chicago’s Dean of Admissions assured students that the current crisis will not negatively impact how they review applications.

“If your school moves to an alternative grading system or method of credit notation (pass/fail, credit/no credit, etc.), we will fully understand why the change has been made and it will not, in any way, be an issue for an admissions office,” the letter stated.

This semester of grades — be them abnormally high, low or just normal — likely won’t affect college admissions much anyway, so why make us needlessly stress? Sure, one could argue that since this semester of grades hardly matter, then schools should just continue using letter grades. But at Paly specifically, students obsess over everything in the gradebook anyway, and that won’t stop unless there’s a school-wide change.

The argument that “my grades are good, so don’t make grades pass/fail” is insensitive to the people who have been devastated by this crisis. Where would that leave students whose parents can’t go to work, whose family businesses closed, or whose households have suffered financially due to the crisis? Relieving these students of the stress of grades is the least we owe them.

For students who were relying on second semester grades to demonstrate improvement in a class, high schools should allow teachers to attach a note on a student’s transcript. If a student significantly improved in the latter half of the school year, the teacher could assess the student’s competence in that subject area.

Some argue that a pass/fail grading system would disincentivize students from continuing to work hard to master class material. But that assumption mistakes students for a herd of wild animals who can only be tamed by grades, and grossly underestimates our self-motivation. Establishing a rigid online class system where attendance is taken will go a long way to help students establish a routine mimicking school and foster learning. Even if students aren’t motivated by this semester’s grades, a lack of effort will undoubtedly hurt grades in the future and put students at a disadvantage in future classes.

The end goal of every education system at this point should be to ensure that students are prepared for the next school year, be it in the fall or later. Teachers already know that whenever in-person classes result, they will likely have to cover some extra material to close the gap created by online learning. So even if a pass/fail system leaves students slightly less prepared, the transition should still be relatively seamless.

College admissions by themselves are already stressful enough. Combined with the cancellation of March and April SAT testing, the possibility of take-home AP exams and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our local community, it may feel at times like our world is coming crashing down.

While we can’t regain lost school days, or make the virus vanish instantly (yet), we can relieve some student stress by making all classes this semester pass/fail.