Mere weeks of the fall 2020 semester remain, and students are panicking. We’ve done everything we can to adapt to this plague-ridden, godforsaken semester — all the while getting besieged by economic crisis, a divisive and bloody presidential campaign and whatever other existential threat you had on your 2020 bingo cards.
So, Bloomington Faculty Council, can you please give us satisfactory/fail grading?
S/F grading is a unique grading policy conceived by the BFC during the onset of COVID-19 related shutdowns. It allowed instructors to award an S grade in lieu of a letter grade, contributing credit for the course and allowing students to maintain a strong GPA.
“During a state of emergency, the closing of a campus or other extraordinary circumstances for a prolonged period that affects an entire campus, an instructor may award an S grade to some or all students,” the BFC said when they carved out the S grade exception in the spring.
Ask any student and they’ll tell you we’ve met these conditions. Yet the BFC has been reluctant to extend this equitable grading option to the fall 2020 semester. Fortunately, the BFC has not made a final decision, and students can still make their case. Here are four reasons the BFC should provide an S/F grading option.
Traditional grading would not reflect our abilities as students
If you think grading this semester represents our abilities as students, you’d be dead wrong. “High achieving” students this semester are not necessarily the most valuable students, best critical thinkers or even the hardest workers.
Many of the fall 2020 high achievers would be the students who could afford to wait out a global depression without getting a part-time job. Or the students who could hire a therapist to handle the stress of a dramatically increased workload. And especially the students who could invest in the technology necessary to thrive in an online learning environment.
Blatantly put, success in the fall 2020 semester is based on luck, an effective crapshoot of achievement based on circumstance and privilege. Members of the BFC continually reference individual incidents to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But in fact, these problems of academic success are systemic. The COVID-19 pandemic and other societal stressors have exacerbated the inequalities that put many students at a disadvantage in higher education.
The stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic are compounded for minority students. Factors such as racial trauma relating to national events and disparities in the quality of health care interventions heighten the mental toll of this year. I need not remind the BFC of racial tensions in our own backyard, intensifying the stress of IU’s minority students and hindering student effectiveness.
Students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds are also more likely to be affected by COVID-19 related economic pressure. As the Washington Post outlines, the economic collapse delivered "a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom.”
Conceivably, thousands of IU’s poorest students must bear the brunt of this economic collapse, finding new part-time jobs to make ends meet and diminishing their ability to perform as a student.
Even otherwise random events such as illnesses, quarantines or the inability of instructors to teach online, have become more prevalent. In fact, students didn’t even know the mode of instructions for their courses until this summer. Planning for success was a bygone task, and failure to level the playing field would harm our most vulnerable students.
Current grading alternatives are insufficient and will reduce six-year graduation success
The BFC has taken action to provide grading relief. They extended the auto-W deadline until December and emphasized the availability of incomplete grading and pass/fail grading. Unfortunately, these measures only delay student success by withholding credits and delaying graduation.
P/F grading, an unpopular grading alternative, is distinct from S/F grading because it is oftentimes not accepted for credit and is unclearly defined. Many schools within IU restrict P/F only to elective courses. Incomplete grades allow students to take up to a year to complete coursework, and failure to do so results in an F. While this seems viable, it would take up significant bandwidth for both faculty and staff, making it untenable and cumbersome to implement for thousands of struggling students.
While these efforts are commendable, it sends a clear message to students: If you can’t adapt, you won’t progress. It’s a major blow to IU’s minority or first generation students who already have lower six-year graduation success rates.
Using S/F grading, students who worked sufficiently hard would be able to progress in schooling without harming their GPA permanently. As Flor Mojica, an organizer of the S/F petition said, “We're simply asking for this option to be accurately given a grade or symbol of how we did in a course.”
Traditional grading would irreversibly harm student success and achievement
Some members of the BFC opposed equitable grading proposals based on the idea of post-graduate success in graduate schools. I find this argument peculiar, especially when current alternatives aren’t any better.
“[Advisers] had real reservations about it,” BFC member Lisa Thomassen said about grading alternatives in Tuesday’s meeting. ”For the consequences of students going on to graduate programs and how this is going to be interpreted. Students are looking for short-term relief, that long-term is not in their best interests.”
First of all, it’s up to students to make interpretations on what’s best for their long-term success, especially with input from advisers. Second, receiving C's, D’s or W’s is arguably more detrimental to student success. Every pre-law student knows to avoid a W like it’s the coronavirus. How can you say new grading policies would hurt post-graduate success, but dropping classes with the Auto-W is viable relief?
Even still, most students aren’t going to attend graduate schools. Only 25% of IU students join some kind of graduate program. The vast majority go straight into the workforce, where GPA is king and a shrinking job market would value high GPAs.
Furthermore, traditional grading and Auto-W’s would have a negative effect on student scholarships and financial aid. Popular awards such as the Provost Scholarship, 21st Century Scholars and the Hudson and Holland Scholars program are all contingent on GPA and enrolled credits.
“I know a lot of people who are here on a GPA-based scholarship, and with everything being online, the pandemic and the social unrest going on right now takes a toll on people,” Makayla Booker, a contributor to the S/F petition, said. “Not everyone can perform the same under these circumstances compared to last year.”
Poor grades and dropped classes are undisputedly harmful for students, especially when grade performance is based on luck and privilege, rather than performance.
The student voice has called for S/F grading
IU leaders often talk about equity, and we urge the BFC to manifest those ideals in practice. Thousands of students have already signed the petition for S/F grading and the IU Student Government Congress passed two resolutions Monday in support of these efforts.
“At the end of the day, it was our job to continue advocating for the thousands of struggling students,” Chase Wampler, chairperson of the IUSG Congress COVID-19 Relief Committee, said.
Not to mention, several Big Ten schools have already shifted to equitable grading after 13 student body presidents called for the change. Additionally, Harvard University and Loyola University took similar steps for this semester.
Students please sign this petition, and send your regards to the Education Policy Committee of the BFC. The committee’s chairperson, J Duncan, mentioned in Tuesday’s meeting that they would be collecting information and considering the issue. This semester, we need an S/F policy more than ever.
Editor's note: This column has been updated to better reflect the conversation at Tuesday's BFC meeting.
Brian Hancock (he/him) studies Law and Public Policy and International Political Economy. He is the President of the Moot Court Club.