Phillipian Commentary: Gone, Grading, Gone

Not long ago, there was some debate among the Andover community when the school announced that spring term grading for all courses will be pass/fail. For a nationally renowned college preparatory school, the news was somehow disturbing and sparked debate among the whole community. To me, pass/fail grading is an acceptable—yet not the only—measure to accompany the online courses: Andover should keep it but add slight improvements to it. Moreover, the change in the grading system actually offers us an opportunity to rethink grading practices.

We should accept pass/fail grading because it offers students more freedom to plan for themselves and their families during the pandemic. As an international student, I still clearly recall that I was extremely hesitant upon whether to return home or not when the pandemic began in the United States in early March, and schooling was my main troubling factor. If I miss school for three days while travelling worldwide (and likely an extra 14 days for quarantine), it is impossible to keep up with the classes and maintain my grades. Yet, I am definitely not the only one who faces difficulty academically. As the student bodies of Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy hail from a wide range of geographical and economical backgrounds, it should be easy for us to imagine what our fellow peers might need to overcome: time difference, travel difficulties, or taking care of their family, to name a few. As we take pride in the diversity our student bodies represent, we consequently have to accept their demands and support them in the best ways we can, including a more lenient grading system.

It is necessary to acknowledge the arguments that oppose pass/fail grading, the main one being that it does not accurately reflect students’ effort and thus poses extra difficulty for Uppers. Indeed, a pass/fail system merely focuses the completion of courses, rather than the academic excellence which colleges value. Though some colleges are becoming more lenient as they lessen their academic requirements (for example, Harvard claims that “[students who present pass/fail grades] will not be disadvantaged”) , the[a]y have yet to reveal how exactly they will compare numerical and pass/fail grades fairly in the application process, so their promises may not sound assuring enough. Thus, pass/fail grading might hinder students in their college application process.

Therefore, it would be better if schools can help students demonstrate their academic potential more fully at such uncertain times. College counselors should take responsibility and help students find their individual ways to show adequacy. Considering the academic resources schools like Andover own, however, there’s much more the schools themselves can do. Maybe instructors should suggest optional resources, such as books to read or free online courses to take, for those who are able to do something more. Only then can we fully claim our schools to be “preparatory”—which means to prepare students well for academia, rather than having a selective admission process.

I believe the pass/fail grading system could be inspiring, as it leads us out of the previous grading practices. Andover and Exeter are among the few schools that neither follow a common four-point Grade Point Average system nor weigh it. Before the pandemic, there have already been discussions about grading policies in both schools, but it was never possible to halt the traditional practice and attempt a different scale. Thus, when Andover pauses the school’s six-point scale tradition by switching to a pass/fail system, it generates a rare opportunity to rethink grading policies in general.

Therefore, let us regard the temporary pass/fail grading policy as a necessary measure yet a daring experiment. Let us think more about the essence of gradings, including fairness as well as academic excellence. Grading may be gone for now, but there’s lots of it ahead.