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Ari Harvey

Sophomore Nick Harvey works at his computer, learning remotely.

PRO/CON: Should students get letter grades for remote learning?

April 13, 2020

PRO: Pass/No Mark is the way to go

Let’s face it: With this spreading coronavirus pandemic, everything has been uncertain and filled with anxiety and changes. It’s a stressful time, and times like this call for effective changes and communication. 

That’s exactly what the San Ramon Valley Unified School District has done.

For the past few weeks, students have been bombarded with changes all across our education — from transitioning to online platforms, to getting rid of letter grades.

The district announced on April 3 that middle and high school students would be graded on a P/NM (pass/no mark) system for the remainder of the school year. This is the fairest option for all students.

Teaching methods have been changing, so shouldn’t grading methods change as well? We can’t simply change one factor in the equation without thinking of the other.

While this change will affect students in many ways, it’s only one of many changes that we are experiencing during this worldwide pandemic. I, for one, commend the district for implementing this change out of fairness and flexibility.

Whether we like it or not, this change will help alleviate the many stresses that we’re all facing. Some of us may have to look after relatives and siblings. Taking away letter grades will help those students focus on their priorities. 

Even for those without other responsibilities, this system will be less stressful. I often hear my peers complain about a test, a grade, or a zero in their progress reports. Think about it. During these past three weeks, how has your academic stress been? Probably not as strong as when we had traditional school, right?

Teachers have also been adjusting to place more emphasis on participation. This allows them to spend less time on grading and updating School Loop. They are also able to genuinely teach material for the purpose of learning, rather than for students to simply get an A.

This situation also forces students to reevaluate why they are learning. Sure, grades are important. But somehow, in the process of growing up, the actual material we learn in school has become less important than the grade that we earn in class.

Many students have questioned whether this was the best option the district could have gone with. The answer is yes.

While some have proposed that students could have the option of going with P/NM or receiving a letter grade, that system realistically wouldn’t work. Teachers have hundreds of students, and to separate students who would like a letter grade and those who wouldn’t would be an immense workload. It also wouldn’t present the same level of fairness to everyone across the district.

It’s not as if we are at any large disadvantage because of this new system. Yes, your third quarter GPA might have been for nothing, but with districts everywhere implementing a similar system, we are all in the same boat.

In fact, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Acalanes Union High School District have already switched to these grading systems, which is detailed in The district’s announcement on April 3. It’s not just high schools making these changes. This system originated from colleges and universities, with prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins all adopting a mandatory pass/fail grading system this semester.

Some people have said that this new system is unfair to the students who worked hard for their 4.0 GPA during the third quarter. I can’t disagree with you there. I poured my heart into my classes, determined for a great second semester of my junior year.

But if we look at this situation from all sides, everything about this entire coronavirus pandemic is unfair, not just the grading system. All student activities have been cancelled, not just on-campus classes. No athletics. No field trips. No dances.

Seniors won’t be able to experience their end-of-year activities. No senior ball. No senior picnic. No graduation ceremonies. No grad night.

Everything is unfair, and we all want things to return to normal. 

The change to the grading system is just one of many that are required. It is a change that we need to accept for what it is right now.

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CON: Pass/No Mark is unfair to all

The San Ramon Valley Unified School District has officially taken the school out of school. That is, our academic progress will no longer be defined by a letter grade, but rather a system of pass/no mark. 

What is pass/no mark? That’s a good question that nobody seems to know the answer to. This system essentially condenses grading into two categories: pass, where students receive credit and advance to the next course; or no mark, where students do not receive credit and are required to repeat the course. 

“Students must receive a ‘Pass’ in order to receive credit for a course,” according to the district website. The credit, however, is the same across the board — nobody receives additional GPA points for a higher grade.

Since it was announced on April 3, the issue of switching to a pass/no mark system has been a plan that is riddled with holes. There seems to be a lot that wasn’t accounted for when this plan was born. 

Obviously, pass/no mark takes the biggest aspect of school away. No, not the learning, but the grades. After all, that’s what it’s all about these days. 

This pass/no mark system is going to mess with students’ grades like never before. Depending on your post-high school plans, this change could make no difference, or it could be catastrophic. 

The students that have the biggest issue are the ones taking AP or honors classes. Pass/no mark doesn’t account for any extra grade point usually earned by students taking weighted courses. This is because GPAs don’t exist on the pass/no mark system. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve read countless posts on social media stating, “There goes my record high GPA”. Students, especially juniors, are losing all of their progress and a lot of their competitive edge heading into college application season this fall.  

Obviously, college admissions are more holistic and don’t just look at grades and scores anymore. But some students rely on these scores to get their foot in the door with colleges. I, for one, am not interesting enough to get into college without a good transcript. 

The biggest issue with this is that not everybody is doing the same thing. America has yet to establish any widespread national action during the time the coronavirus pandemic has swept through the country, and it’s spilling over into the school systems. 

Our district might be going to pass/no mark for a semester, but is the rest of the state? Is Kansas? Is Virginia? For areas that stick to letter grades, their transcripts are going to be more stacked, which is not good for us hyper-competitive Californians trying to go to college. 

It’s true that many prestigious American universities have pledged to not look at spring grades for students, or to accept pass/no mark grades for the spring of 2020.  But what about other state schools not in California, which many students from Cal High hope to attend? What about universities abroad? What about military academies or vocational schools that may want to see certain milestones reached by applicants?

Once again, with no widespread conformity in terms of grading, Cal students could be left at a disadvantage in college admissions. Even if they pass every class, other students get to keep their GPA system and show more of what they could do. 

The UC system also only looks at sophomore and junior grades when considering applicants, so the classes of 2021 and 2022 have officially lost a quarter of their application in terms of grades.

There is another big thing educators aren’t accounting for: motivation, or lack thereof, to actually do the work. It would appear that educators plan on taking away grades and grade incentives along with our friends, school events (RIP class of 2020), and just about everything we had to look forward to. 

People go to school for two reasons: to be social and to get through their work so they can get a grade. We’ve already had our friends taken away (thank you quarantine). Now grades have been eliminated as well. So what exactly is making us do the work? 

Students getting A’s and B’s now need to do the equivalent of D work to achieve the high school graduation requirement to pass. And students that may have failed a class before will now simply receive a “no mark” with no hit to their GPA. 

I also can’t be the only one who’s been laughing at memes about cheating on online work since the state’s stay-at-home order started last month. Students were already unmotivated to work for a grade before, but now they’re not even working for one at all. It’s all busy work.

Honestly, I understand that drastic times call for drastic measures. Kudos to our district for trying to stay on track in response to the craziness around us. But there are just so many loose ends to this plan, and it’d be great if the district actually communicated with us more extensively. I literally had to look up what exactly pass/no mark constitutes before writing this.

There are just so many questions I have about everything. How is all of our individual work going to be graded? Completion or credit in the style of pass/no mark? What are finals going to look like? How will we turn in our books? What about students who left their textbooks in their lockers for the weekend on March 13? 

In a perfect world, I honestly think there should be a more widespread plan for handling remote learning. The district took far longer than other districts in California to implement its plan in the first place because districts thought the states were left to their own devices. The state, and country for that matter, didn’t focus on having any conformity to keep everyone on track. 

That means some other districts around the San Ramon Valley are keeping letter grades, leaving our district’s students at a disadvantage regarding GPA and college admissions. Numerous petitions have started on community websites such as Nextdoor.com to let students choose whether to keep letter grades. It’s unlikely such protests will get anywhere with the district. 

Whether you see this grade system change as a blessing or a curse, pass/no mark is definitely here to stay for the rest of the school year. I acknowledge, and so should everyone, that people are doing their best to navigate a global pandemic. 

I’m going to miss school. Yes, I said it.  But regardless of how our transcripts look in June, I just hope everyone figures out what needs to be done. Until then, I guess the only thing left to say is don’t be late to the Zoom lectures. 

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