Why we need universal pass

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We need universal pass. It is imperative every student in every class taken this semester at UC Berkeley be graded pass/no pass with no exceptions.

According to the campus’s recent announcement, students will be graded pass/no pass with the option to request letter grades. This tiered grading scheme, however, penalizes students who understandably cannot prioritize their academic success in the face of a global pandemic. While letter grades usually function as our best benchmark for learning, such a specific and hierarchical breakdown of student outcomes loses both meaning and accuracy in light of recent upheaval. 

So even though adding the option to receive letter grades seems like an accommodation, our current hodgepodge grading scheme simply combines the worst of both worlds: We get passes that seem worthless next to the prospect of an A, and As that are likely the product of happenstance rather than improvement. 

First and foremost, I commend the UC Berkeley administration for its response to the pandemic. It shines not only against the actions and reactions of other institutions but also against this campus’s own track record of emergency management. The administration’s measures to prioritize the campus community’s housing, dining and health have thus far answered the questions that many across the nation currently face: Should students go to class and risk their immunocompromised peers’ lives or fall behind? Should students work and fall ill or starve? Across the United States, people are asking themselves — do I prioritize the health of my society or do I preserve my material ability to live? 

Across the United States, people are asking themselves — do I prioritize the health of my society or do I preserve my material ability to live? 

In preventing members of the campus community from having to weigh these choices, UC Berkeley has proved its commitment to equity. The consequences of a pandemic fall unevenly upon different shoulders according to race, class and gender, and I applaud campus administration in these trying times for its work to alleviate that differential. 

The current grading scheme, however, runs anathema to the administration’s demonstrated commitment to equity. Relieving students of difficult choices is alleviating the burden of a pandemic. Support looks like not forcing students to make the choice between spreading disease and learning, the choice between distancing and starving and most of all, the illusory choice between academic success and survival. Expecting meaningful learning from students coping with these circumstances seems a far-fetched notion. 

In fact, that notion is borne almost entirely of class privilege, a wonderful insulator from all the aforementioned vagaries of life. To borrow an observation from Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler, a large part of what allows people to be entrepreneurial and even visionary is insulation from risk. That’s why so many children from rich families have become revolutionary innovators — essentially, they start companies because there are no negative consequences, unlike small-business owners who cannot afford health insurance if their businesses fail.

In the same vein, academic success requires a degree of risk-taking and resource devotion that under-resourced students cannot afford. Grades purportedly benchmark a student’s internal moral fiber, skill, learning and any number of other characteristics, but they are, at best, extremely noisy measurements. As Thaler’s observation captures, observable success often covaries with features of life that are outside our immediate control — such as race, gender and class. 

This pandemic widens and deepens the differential of observable academic success across class, and any grading system that highlights that difference operates under the false pretense of measuring learning instead of shelter from disruption, otherwise known as privilege. Assigning letter grades in extraordinary circumstances such as these rewards students who can cope better with pandemic measures because of circumstance. It is fundamentally inequitable, in a time when class inequality is so apparent, to choose a grading system wherein a student who receives straight Cs is denoted as lesser than a student who receives straight As. 

We need universal pass. No matter if our straight-C student is brighter or duller or richer or poorer than our straight-A student, both students face upheaval with no end in sight. These are simply such abnormal times that seemingly obvious choices are fraught with consequence. Whether to go out or to stay home has been transformed into a balancing act between needing groceries and preserving a stranger’s immune system or between making rent and getting evicted. 

In this rocky landscape, it’s no stretch to imagine students having trouble focusing in class, let alone strategizing which classes to take pass/no pass or letter grades in. The best thing this school has done is take the burden of choosing between equally weighty repercussions out of our hands, so it seems ironic that we are forcing a choice that students are in no position to make: whether to letter and likely be penalized for situations outside of our control, or to pass/no pass and be penalized for not lettering.

The deficiency of tiered grades is as such: Even in idyll, grades capture academic performance, but only alongside environmental and personal information that is critical to accurately differentiating students. An A at a rigorous private high school is different from an A at a public, provisionally accredited one, but an A at the latter shouldn’t automatically discount the students who have the misfortune of attending. An A earned while working full time and raising two children is manifestly more difficult to achieve than an A earned while living at home rent-free as a 16-year-old. 

Enter a global pandemic, and the merit of grades as a gauge for anything except the privilege required to sustain normalcy becomes increasingly shaky.

Enter a global pandemic, and the merit of grades as a gauge for anything except the privilege required to sustain normalcy becomes increasingly shaky. We might acknowledge that reality enough to accept spring 2020 pass/no pass grades as equivalent to their letter-graded siblings for graduation requirements within this campus, but what about the students who need letter grades for admission elsewhere? Our current grading system gives us students who merely graduate when what we want is students who succeed. The option to letter is an acquiesce to other institutions’ demands for ratings we know will systematically disadvantage some students over others. We must disavow the pretense that grades given during a pandemic accurately reflect student performance. We need universal pass. 

To the UC Berkeley administration — students who do not take letter grades may be excluded from future opportunities by your offering letter grading as an option. On the other hand, you suggest students who do take the lettered option and receive Ds and Fs in these unprecedented times deserve those grades. Tiered grades do aught but hedge the distance between universal pass and universal lettering while screwing students both ways for the trouble. 

Our current grading scheme does not equally aid students of all backgrounds in their pursuit of success. In fact, it inevitably judges students struggling in pandemic as lesser than their privileged peers. To that end, tiered grading is a false choice rife with the classism and exclusion of elite institutions. Instead, we, as a student body, as an academic administration, as a campus community, must embrace the vocal diversity and radical inclusion that make UC Berkeley a beacon worldwide.

I ask the UC Berkeley administration to refuse evident inequity and class partiality. We need universal pass.

Contact Casey Li at [email protected].

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