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Editorial: Inconsistent pass/no pass grading across departments hurts well-being of students

By Editorial Board

May 21, 2020 3:38 p.m.

This post was updated May 27 at 10:14 p.m.

Tough classes, research on hold and a global pandemic.

These days, South Campus students really can’t catch a break, and their departments certainly aren’t making it any easier.

With Bruins scattered across corners of the globe having to deal with personal and financial insecurities on their own, many departments rightly decided to take one burden off their students’ shoulders through pass/no pass grading. Some of the most rigorous departments, however, are behind the curve.

Under the current system, students taking classes for letter grades in the three departments still holding out – physics and astronomy, mathematics and economics – are at a comparative disadvantage. The former departments have not allowed any pass/no pass classes to be taken for major requirements, while the economics department has only allowed some major requirements be taken pass no pass. Unlike the vast majority of departments on campus, these stragglers force rigid letter grading onto students who, more than ever, require flexibility.

And if departments can’t take responsibility for their students’ well-being, it’s time a higher authority steps in.

UCLA and the Academic Senate must take a heavier hand in standardizing a pass/no pass approach across all departments. In leaving these decisions up to individual departments, UCLA is doing a disservice to the equity of education, as well as individual students who are already navigating challenging classes and denied a grading safety net.

Unsurprisingly, this inconsistent approach isn’t anything new. From its response to the Getty fire to its decisions about finals during week 10 of winter quarter, UCLA has a history of coming up with disjointed, uncertain strategies to help students during times of crisis.

And it must reverse this dangerous trend.

Because one only needs to examine the quality of education a student receives from “Zoom University” to understand why a pass/no pass grading option is a must-have.

Lackluster engagement, limited opportunities to ask questions, technical difficulties and more prevent students from performing to the best of their ability. This is a shortcoming of the system, not of the student. The decision to maintain a facade of normality in grading unjustly faults students for circumstances outside of their control.

We are currently in a moment that demands clear messaging and fair accommodations. And that means university leadership must ensure that departments lend students a hand, rather than kick them when they’re down.

It’s true that some of these departments uphold high selectivity in their fields. With longevity in mind, maintaining letter grades could help students back onto regularized tracks a few months or years down the road.

But this train of thought is deeply flawed.

First, plenty of selective departments are finding workarounds through these difficult times. For example, the communication major is a small and application-based major – yet, the communication department is allowing the pass/no pass grading option for major requirements after receiving student concerns.

Second, and more importantly, there’s a stark chance that not every student will be able to hang on a few more months without accommodation. Dropouts are on the rise, and many students are grappling with the greatest economic downturn and public health emergency in decades.

The push to make pass/no pass grading available to students should not end as the school year comes to an end, but should be universally offered through the duration of online classes – however long that may be.

Pass/no pass grades are little more than an inconvenience for administrators, but a potential lifesaver for students.

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