There is nothing ‘fair’ about forced satisfactory/no-credit grading

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The majority of the Faculty Senate decided on Thursday that spring quarter would be graded on a Universal Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) scale, arguing that the policy would promote fairness. While the policy may appear fair from an ivory tower, to many students it is anything but.

It is unclear to me how grades are ever considered “fair.” While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruption and challenges for everyone, students face unique challenges all the time and are rarely afforded any institutional sympathy. I have a disability that sometimes affects my ability to attend in-person classes, but I have never been given the option of taking classes remotely out of fairness — not even with help from the Office of Accessible Education. The new policy would not create equity; it would simply freeze existing inequities in place.

Many students face unique challenges while living at home that affect their education, such as caretaking responsibilities, limited internet access or distressing environments. Students with disabilities are also facing new barriers to access. For these reasons, taking a class as S/NC should absolutely be an option, but it should not be forced. One student impacted by homelessness, in an open letter penned by PWR professor Ruth Starkman, writes that “As a FLI sophomore it took me a year to hit my stride and get straight As, I need medical schools to see my continued improvement, please don’t tell me that medical schools will cut me slack for an S grade, when instead they could see my As under even the most dire circumstances.”

Additionally, the fact that the Faculty Senate made this decision with little to no student input is clear, because it focused on the impact the policy would have on students as a group, competing for better GPAs compared to others in the same class or cohort, rather than as individuals, who may need an absolute GPA regardless of comparison with others. For students who don’t plan to pursue graduate school, “fairness” is a smaller issue, but grades still matter. Some students are just trying to meet minimum GPA requirements for jobs or to get off of academic probation. The Universal S/NC policy robs them of the opportunity to make progress.

Perhaps the most egregious oversight in this debacle is that the Faculty Senate made this change with no guarantee as to whether S/NC spring courses will even count toward major or general education requirements. Instead they “strongly urge” departments to alter requirements. I empathize with the desire to preserve departmental autonomy, but this comes at the expense of student sanity. It is now up to us to frantically email our department heads to see if it is even worth enrolling for spring quarter, and not everyone has the ability to simply take the quarter off if the answer is no. Some students are set to graduate and enter the workforce in a few short months. Some rely on enrollment to maintain their F-1 visa status. Others need financial aid to meet their living expenses.

Not to mention, without any guarantee that spring courses will count toward major or general education requirements, Stanford remains committed to maintaining tuition rates at their current levels. Students have already stepped in where Stanford has fallen short — contributing to funds for students facing unexpected expenses after being kicked off of campus, and for dining staff that Stanford laid off last week, despite its multi-billion dollar endowment. If students are paying full tuition to attend online courses, we should be allowed to receive due credit for the work we put in. At the very least we should have a substantial say in a decision that affects the value of our education.

It’s possible that faculty members were influenced by schools like Columbia and Dartmouth moving to a Universal S/NC grading basis, or similar, for the spring. However, unlike Stanford, many of these schools operate on semesters where the change to an online format more deeply affects ongoing courses. In our case, we will be starting new classes in spring quarter, and we have ample time to settle into our new living and working arrangements and to make informed decisions about whether or not we would like to receive letter grades.

A more “equitable” option for allocating grades would be one that allows students to earn a letter grade if desired, but does not punish students for taking an S grade like standing policies do. I understand faculty concerns that the ASSU’s proposal of an A+/A/NC scale would risk giving A grades to otherwise C- work. However, as Claire Robinson ’20 put it, “I fear that this new policy was chosen over an A+/A/NC option because it was seen as more important to prevent students earning lower grades from ‘falsely’ getting higher ones than to allow students to earn As and A+’s for their hard work.”

In my opinion, a good compromise would be to allow students to choose between a letter grade and a S/NC grade like they typically would, but to also guarantee that S/NC courses taken this spring will count toward major and distribution requirements. I would also be in favor of variants like A/A-/NC or A/B/NC options. Such policies would allow students grace under difficult circumstances, but would also give credit where credit is due.

We are living through unprecedented times, and we are experiencing universal struggle. However, this universal struggle should not overshadow the individual struggles that students face day-in and day-out or the compounding effects of acute crisis on chronic setbacks. I urge the Faculty Senate to reconsider its decision. In this time of unprecedented chaos, please show us compassion, but please also allow us to thrive.

If you would like to urge the Faculty Senate to reconsider their decision in light of student feedback, please sign and distribute this petition.

Contact Kelly Schulz at schulz19 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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