A Christian’s Moral Argument for Double A Grading
COVID-19 has created an unprecedented global crisis; I hardly need to speak more on that. Beyond its myriad global effects, though, it has changed life as a student at the Claremont Colleges to an extent never seen before. For the last few weeks the question on the collective Claremont conscience has been, as the world grapples with the novel disease, where will students physically go? And now that that question has been answered (however rudely or kindly) for most Claremont students, the Claremont conscience now turns to the question of how the spring semester of 2020, one that will go down in history, will be graded. In times like these where we face a lifeless virus destroying seemingly everything we once held dear, it’s important to remember that this virus will end, life will go on, and when it does we, and many others, will look back on how we acted during this time. We won’t recount what we did selfishly to survive — we’ll recount how we fought to preserve our humanity, our community, and our values in the face of a world-stopping virus. How we choose to grade this semester means something, and as a Christian, I’d like to share some insights from the Christian tradition that I think can help light an uncertain path.
Any good argument on grading, I believe, should begin with a reflection on why we grade in the first place. Here, it’s important to note that letter grading is a relatively recent invention in the history of education (the first record of a letter grade was in 1883), and it’s one that some assert is a way out of providing a more comprehensive and holistic view of a student’s learning. Harvey Mudd College asserts that “Faculty assign grades that measure not only performance on tests and assignments but a level of mastery of the subject matter as well.” Pomona College states that “Grades may be based on one or more of the following: mastery of course materials, performance compared to peers, and individual growth and improvement during the course.” Grades are intended to reflect how much a student has learned through a course, but even in normal circumstances they are flawed. What happens when a pandemic scatters students across the globe into situations with grossly unequal conditions? How can we fairly judge mastery, growth, improvement, and especially performance compared to peers during a pandemic?
In situations like these, the Bible clearly calls for unity. It teaches us to think of one another, saying, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7, ESV). During this crisis, one of the clearest ways we can express our love for each other and our communities is by standing in solidarity with our fellow students and advocating for a universal grading policy. Any policy that is not universal, such as a default pass/no credit policy that provides the option to opt-in to a letter grade, would unfairly benefit those who have the means to excel academically even in this crisis. In a time where only 2% of low-income Claremont students report having an “excellent” learning space at home and 27% report having a “poor” learning space (compared to 6% and 6% respectively for non-low-income students), advocating for a P/NC policy that still allows for letter grades during this time is clearly putting one’s own interests above those of their fellow students.
The Bible also calls for mercy. A universal policy ensures equity, but many students still depend on this semester to bring up their GPAs and demonstrate their learning and development over their time in college. Further, many seniors looking toward the future counted on this semester to help bring up their GPAs, something that is incredibly important for admission to graduate school, a path that some 81% of Pomona students choose. In the book of Hebrews, the author writes “Let us then with confidence draw near to the [God’s] throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). This is unequivocally a huge time of need that calls for a merciful and gracious policy. In my eyes, that policy is the universal Double A policy proposed by many students across the country, and recently endorsed by the ASPC Senate. A universal policy that puts a pass for every class on every students’ transcript hurts students that needed this semester to boost their GPAs, including but not limited to aforementioned seniors, transfer students, and underprivileged students. The Double A policy allows students to survive in an uncertain time without the fear of getting a grade in a class, during a pandemic no less, that jeopardizes their future.
The obvious problems of this policy are that 1) doing so would seemingly undermine the “sanctity” or validity of our grades, and 2) that such a proposal would never be passed by the faculty. The first argument assumes that grades given for performance during this semester would be the same as for any other semester. But as previously mentioned, the leveling ground of Claremont has been lost and there is no way that students can be judged equally, and thus, during this time, we should prioritize the needs of students over the sanctity of grades, which at this point, is at best unstable. To the second point, I’d like to ask students and faculty to once again think about what we value as the Claremont community. As every educational institution in the world reacts to this threat, what will we, as a consortium of leading liberal arts colleges, choose to broadcast to the world? Graduate schools around the country are already signaling that they are cognizant of the differing grading policies schools may adopt, and the extenuating circumstances that may cause them to do so. So five, ten, fifty years later, when we look back at how we acted during this time, when the individual grades matter little but our actions matter most, what will we see? I hope that we’ll be able to proudly say that our schools put their students ahead of their reputations.
I, as one individual Pomona student, have little power to change this outcome, but if we choose to carefully listen to each other and treat one another with grace, we are strong. My hope is that we can all come together and speak loudly with one, unified voice, so that no matter how this semester ends up being graded, our message will be heard for years to come.
Samuel Lin is a fourth-year student at Pomona College majoring in Economics and minoring in Asian Studies. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely his. If you’re interested in listening more to your fellow students, I encourage you to read the impressively comprehensive report by the 5C Students for Grade Equity here, and the report by ASPC here. If the above materials have resonated with you, please consider sharing this letter with your professors.