Tentative Optimism: The English Department’s Perspective on English 100 Going Pass/Fail

This Fall Term, English 100 gave new students a different experience. Juniors at Andover received no grades on their written work in English 100 during the Fall Term this year. Instead, the course was graded on a pass/fail basis, although teachers did give constructive feedback and comments to help students improve their work. During the Winter and Spring Terms, students will receive grades on Andover’s standard six-point scale, as well as final grades for the class. The English department is committed to a two-year plan using this system, after which it will evaluate the merits of the change and consider whether or not to adopt it permanently. This week, Commentary asked students and faculty to share their perspectives on the new approach to English 100. Commentary interviewed Jonathan Stableford, the Chair of the English Department, and corresponded by email with Jeffrey Domina, the English 100 Course Head, on the decision to make English 100 pass/fail. Reasons for the Change “The move to an ungraded Fall Term in English 100 was primarily a response to the imperative of the 2004 Strategic Plan that we do a better job of addressing the needs of entering students who are less well prepared for the particular demands of PA,” said Domina in an email. “However,” he continued, “the English department is optimistic that it will serve all Juniors well and perhaps better than a graded Fall Term.” This transition to an ungraded Fall Term has given four-year students a new and different experience with the English curriculum at Phillips Academy. In a separate interview, Stableford seconded this opinion on the change. “Andover deliberately accepts people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from all over the world, so naturally ninth graders face a difficult adjustment upon coming here. Why would we grade that [adjustment]? The whole purpose [of the new pass/fail system] is to help lift some of the pressure on ninth graders,” he said. Stableford also commented on the unique experience that Juniors have when they first take English at Andover in comparison to those students in other classes. “In English 100, in the very beginning, no one’s looking at the grades – no colleges. [In English 200 and 300], there is a different kind of pressure,” he said. How the Decision Was Made When asked about the process of the change, Domina commented, “Last year, after speaking with some other teachers, I made the proposal to the other [English] 100 teachers, who quickly agreed that it was worth a try. We had little trouble convincing the rest of the department to support the idea, and finally Jon Stableford, the department chair, secured the endorsement of Academic Counci.” Stableford said that within the English Department there was a lot of support for the experiment this year. “[The change] was almost universally accepted as a good idea by the people who would be affected by it… There were virtually no arguments against it,” he said. Evaluating the Change “This is a two-year experiment, and we won’t really know anything until after the Winter and Spring Terms… We think people will be more confident with “The Odyssey,” which comes right in the middle of Winter Term,” said Stableford. He mentioned that he had heard little negative feedback from within the English department, but that there was a need for formal evaluation. This past Thursday, there was a faculty meeting of all the English 100 teachers to discuss the change. In an email, Domina said, “We are committed to the plan for next year as well, and we will decide after that whether to return to graded Fall Terms, to continue with only ungraded Fall Terms, or to expand the ungraded format to other terms or to other courses.” View From the Classroom “[The pass/fail system] puts the importance on conferencing and the teacher’s narrative comments, and not the number, which is more important anyway. Am I seeing more energy from my kids now? I think that they are just as engaged. I am not concerned that they were putting their English work at the bottom of the list. Andover kids come with self-discipline and intellectual curiosity. Of course, sometimes kids didn’t do their reading last term, but that sometimes happens this term too.” Stephanie Curci, Instructor in English