Grades Don’t Matter… or Do They?

Despite SCAPP advocacy, CAPP maintains normal grading policy

In a Quest Letter to the Editors published on Oct. 30, 2020, the Student Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (SCAPP) expressed frustration that the Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (CAPP) rejected SCAPP’s proposal to continue the extended Cr/NCr option available to all students in the spring instead of retaining the normal grading policy. The letter highlighted the series of ongoing debates concerning the ways in which Reed’s grading system should adapt to the unprecedented and destructive COVID-19 pandemic.

Illustration by Mychal Miller

Illustration by Mychal Miller

Last semester, former Dean of Faculty Nigel Nicholson announced that CAPP decided to allow students to opt for either Cr/NCr or letter grades for most classes. The rationale behind the decision was that the pandemic was ravaging the U.S., forcing colleges to shut down as students and faculty faced unprecedented challenges. Out of consideration for students’ well-being during these difficult times, the Reed administration adapted the grading policy to be more flexible and understanding. However, SCAPP, as well as many students, were pushing for an even more lenient and accommodating Universal Pass or Double A policy as adopted by many other colleges across the U.S.. President Audrey Bilger and CAPP eventually turned down the proposal because the administration wanted to preserve the meaningfulness of Reed grades and accreditation. 

But now that students are navigating the semester amidst uncertainty and heavy public health restrictions and protocols, many are starting to feel uneasy about the grading system once again. One student posted on social media that they felt this semester was by far the most overwhelming one and that the administration should not act as if everything was business as usual. Since the post triggered a wave of resonance and similar concerns, more and more students spoke out to oppose the lack of Cr/NCr option and to support SCAPP’s effort to address the issue with CAPP and the administration.

Nic Hubbard, a junior biology student, thinks that the lack of a Cr/NCr option this semester is “the second worst decision the faculty has made this semester.” As a biology student, Hubbard believes that STEM students are most negatively impacted by conducting in-person classes in the midst of an unpredictable pandemic. Upper-level STEM classes tend to have independent projects that require access to equipment or laboratories and are done in students’ own time, but Hubbard said that professors have not adapted these projects to the present environment. Because of the timing of Thanksgiving break, all data collection must be completed before Nov. 20. This schedule, however, does not factor in contracting the coronavirus and having to quarantine for two weeks, which would introduce major difficulties when the semester pauses and goes online. 

Hubbard also worries about underreporting on campus. While workaholism leads to poor personal health decisions such as lack of sleep or skipping meals, it can also lead to students choosing not to report symptoms or quarantine if they are in dire need of getting lab work or other projects done. As such, Hubbard hopes that students aren’t neglecting their health and well-being this semester even if they are operating under severe time restraints.  

Professor of Biology Kara Cerveny offers an alternative perspective on CAPP’s decision. Cerveny conceded that the ongoing public health crisis is affecting students adversely, but she also stressed the importance of staying resilient. Life cannot just stop in the face of a challenging pandemic. The college has carefully planned out logistics and health protocols to maximize safety and minimize disruptions in teaching and learning. If students have personal difficulties, they are encouraged to reach out to specific professors. 

Cerveny suggested students need to have a growth mindset, just like with coursework. “We cannot simply surrender to all of the bad things going on, we must resist and do our best to make this world a better place by learning how to change our current situation,” said Cerveny. 

Additionally, the thing that drew Cerveny to Reed over other small liberal arts colleges when she came here in 2012 was the commitment of Reed faculty and students to learning—learning not to get a grade, but to understand concepts and material that could be applied to real-world problems. Cerveny urges students not to worry about grades during this time but to focus on doing the best we can in the present with our eyes toward a better future.

While the switch to a Cr/NCr option seems unlikely at this moment, it is vital that students take care of themselves during these unusual times and to try their best to maintain a positive attitude toward learning and living. 

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