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COVID-19 will spark countless short and long-term changes that have no prior precedent. What questions might Columbia’s mandatory pass/fail grading policy raise in how we acknowledge the academic merit of affected students?

Among others, the University has joined Harvard Law School, Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Wellesley College in instating a mandatory pass/fail grading system in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

With over 400,000 identified cases of COVID-19 worldwide and over five percent of confirmed cases located in New York City, many expect a continuing surge of cases, hospital overcrowding, and widespread, enforced social distancing measures in the coming months. As the pandemic exacerbates the likelihood of economic and health-related hardships in months or even years to come, many point out that the virus will disproportionately hurt low-income populations.

While the longevity of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unclear, the questions of how the pandemic will affect the physical, emotional, and economic well-being of millions will call for more accommodations and case-specific measures of success within higher education.

Erika Kitzmiller, a term assistant professor in education at Barnard and historian with a focus on educational equity, said the waves of universities recognizing students’ differing circumstances in the face of the pandemic could lead to greater acknowledgment of an uneven playing field among students.

“My hope is that people will be more open to students’ challenges that they face because of inequities not only in society but in the institutions where we work,” Kitzmiller said. “I have a strong hope they will because colleges are being really responsive to this and I’m really proud of that.”

The last time a pass/fail grading policy was put in place for all classes and students at Columbia was after the 1968 demonstrations. However, students then had the choice to opt-in to receive pass/fail credit or to receive letter grades. Now, with the rest of the semester taking place online and off-campus, the University said its decision to implement a mandatory pass/fail system equalizes grading, as students of different backgrounds bear different consequences from this unprecedented time in history.

“While some students and faculty may feel that the usual awarding of letter grades would be desirable for individual reasons, the imperative in this time of global crisis is to do what is best for the entire academic community so that the playing field is leveled for all,” Columbia College Dean James Valentini wrote in an email to the community on Monday afternoon.

For Abdulla Bin Tamim, CC ’22, the universal grading pass/fail policy will help in relieving some of the stress students face, particularly as many lack the option of using the semester as a “GPA-booster” due to financial constraints, family obligations, different time zones, and access to mental and physical health resources

“There is a pandemic that is spreading. And it has affected some of our students, and it has affected some of our professors,” Tamim said. “During a global health crisis, during a pandemic, classes cannot and should not be the number one priority.”

However, not all students agreed that the universal pass/fail system was the best choice for the remainder of the semester, as at least 1,850 supporters petitioned for an opt-in pass/fail system as of Tuesday night.

Michelle Yan, CC ’20, started a petition to opt into a pass/fail option and said open communication between all students, professors, and other stakeholders of the community should be key. She also went on to state that the universal pass/fail system does not grant students agency in their educational and professional lives.

“Right now we are just given a decision. It really doesn’t allow for us to exercise any agency over our professional or academic careers,” Yan said.

Yan said the decision for universal pass/fail credit can potentially hurt students’ academic and professional interests, as Columbia students compete with students from other universities who have the option to uncover letter grades this semester.

“It seems quite naive to think there won’t be any bias against the Columbia students in this case, just because the admissions committees inadvertently, after years of reading applications, are used to seeing grades,” Yan said.

Experts have noted that universities’ decisions across the nation may reinforce the need for graduate schools to adjust their evaluation of applicants. In response to those voicing concerns that mandatory pass/fail policy will impact their future graduate school admissions, Kitzmiller said admissions officers will be more understanding of the gravity of a pandemic than some may think.

“I trust, as someone who’s done graduate admissions in the past, that people looking at those admissions packets will do so with humility and honor the fact that many people were in a different situation right now,” Kitzmiller said.

Jeremiah Nelson, vice president of NAGAP, the Association for Graduate Enrollment Management, said the pandemic’s short and long-run effects will only reinforce the benefit of holistic graduate school admissions policies.

“While widely used, it is not used universally, there are plenty of programs even still that use cut-offs for GPAs or test scores and that kind of thing in the decision making process … so this is perfect example where holistic admissions is going to be to the benefit of a student who has gone through this experience.”

Michael Rebell, the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, said instating the universal pass/fail system is called for during this crisis, but expects standardized grading to return once normal operations resume. He does, however, see a potential for change in gauging merit in K-12 schooling.

“There’s a lot of understanding that the standardized testing system, especially when it’s taken on such great importance, has distorted a lot of what’s been going on with our education,” Rebell said. “So for K-12, I would hope that in a post-coronavirus emergency situation we use that as an opportunity to look at better ways of assessing students and coming up with much more accurate and fair systems of judging what students are learning.”

Kitzmiller noted that differing student backgrounds have always made current forms of assessment imperfect measures of a student's ability, but the days to come after the pandemic could change that.

“My hope and optimism is rooted in the fact that I hope people will listen to the real challenges that students face or with bigger hearts and open ears in the future, right?” Kitzmiller said. “I think this is going to fundamentally change the way we think about society or at least I try to think of dark times creating better futures forward.”

Staff writer Sofia Partida can be contacted at sofia.partida@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

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