Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the Minding the Campus on April 2, 2020 and is crossposted with permission.
America’s students will get a lot of pass/fail grades during the coronavirus pandemic. The University of Pennsylvania, Lehigh University, and Haverford College have allowed students to choose whether to be graded pass/fail for classes this semester. Duke University announced, “all spring courses at the university will default to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade scheme.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will require students to take their classes pass/fail. More than 500 Harvard students have signed a petition by Harvard for All calling for all grades to be either A or A-minus.
That might be reasonable if the colleges had good reasons, such as the difficulty for colleges to set up distance learning, or for colleges to learn how to use distance learning software. All too often, they cite bad reasons instead. Administrators express concern, and students complain about stress and equity. Grades cause students stress. Some students don’t have perfect access to computers, so no student should be graded. Our snowflakes and our social justice warriors, heavily overlapping categories, naturally want to eliminate all grades.
Students who were doing well in class aren’t happy. Why should their A work be turned into pass/fail against their will? They’re correct, of course, that worry about stress and equityalways penalizes students with the merit and the character to do well faced with any challenge.
What they don’t realize is how little the coronavirus changes matters. In practice, our colleges were already close to pass/fail.
Grade inflation has steadily worsened at America’s colleges for two generations. As Tom Lindsay noted in Forbes, “in 1969, only 7 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges reported that their grade point average was A-minus or higher. Yet in 2009, 41 percent of students reported as same.” As have become the most commonly awarded grades. Grade inflation is even worse in the Ivy League than at the community colleges: the median grade at Harvard is an A-minus. The imperative of educational equity has already led many colleges to stop using standardized tests for admissions—and for the College Board to attempt to replace merit-based testing with “adversity scores.” The snowflake activists and the grade-grubbers are using the coronavirus to make our de facto educational regime official: You breathe, you get an A.
Education always ought to be a rigorous test of students’ ability and character. But the coronavirus strengthens that argument rather than weakens it. A major justification for rigorous tests in school, whether in K-12 or in higher education, was always that life is a rigorous test, and we want our children to be prepared to pass whatever problems life throws at us.
The coronavirus substantiates that justification in spades. What is the coronavirus but an extremely severe test? – a test directed not only to our doctors and our nurses and our policemen but also to our entire leadership class. Many of them are failing—but at least they were selected from that previous generation of students that were sifted by the remnants of a rigorous higher education system, which still paid more than lip service to the ideals of meritocracy.
Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s leaders who must respond to the next pandemic out of China. Our colleges want to make sure that they will face that crisis without ever having faced any severe test. If the Harvard students who signed the Harvard for All petition have their way, tomorrow’s leaders will think that just showing up means you get an A.
Pandemics demand more than pass/fail. Better for our colleges to grade rigorously now if we don’t want the bodies to pile up tomorrow.
David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars
Image: Kelly Sikkema, Public Domain