EDITORIAL: SMU Must Implement a Default Pass/Fail System

As SMU begins its first week of online classes, it must take into account how its academic evaluation policies will affect the SMU community. The coronavirus situation has deeply disrupted many of our lives. Academically, students and professors are no longer in the same learning environments where they began the semester, and the classes that they prepared for have been drastically altered. For many members of our community, the virus will undoubtedly take a heavy emotional and financial toll. SMU has an obligation to clearly and quickly establish a new academic evaluation system that accounts for these circumstances, while also addressing the academic concerns of its students.

The university needs to implement a default pass/fail system across all departments, while also granting students an optional graded component should they find themselves capable of, and wanting a letter grade on their transcript. Default pass/fail would allow students to complete their current course and stay on track academically, without unfairly affecting their GPA in this unprecedented situation. An optional graded assessment, like a final exam, performance, essay, or project would allow students to demonstrate proficiency for a letter grade, should they so choose. Many courses already have a final assessment built into the syllabus. This system would balance students’ varying academic and personal situations while giving them the freedom to choose an option that best fits them.

During the normal school year, letter grades evaluate competency relative to a consistent rubric or standard, but this evaluation is now illegitimate when individual circumstances are so unpredictable. At the beginning of every semester, faculty and students mutually agree to the terms of their course as defined by the syllabus, which functions not only as an overview but as a sort of contract. Our transition online has changed the nature of nearly all courses and the terms of said syllabus-contracts. The university system has been suddenly pushed into an online experiment, with students suddenly scattered across the world, and across time zones, while professors scramble to rearrange entire classes online with a few days’ notice. Implementing a default pass/fail system will acknowledge the collective burden of this pandemic on our community, while also granting students the ability to continue their education online without the burden of strict, and now irrelevant, academic criteria hanging over their heads.

A default pass/fail system would recalibrate student incentives and encourage students to engage with their coursework during an incredibly difficult time, rather than focusing on their scores. As it stands now, many online courses will inevitably be prone to academic dishonesty and disengagement. It would be ridiculous to pretend that letter grades given under these circumstances would demonstrate the usual standards of a course or the university. A default pass/fail system will lift a heavy burden when, now more than ever, students need to be able to concentrate on simply learning the material.

There are, however, students who rely on this semester’s letter grades to maintain merit scholarships or to apply for graduate school. These students are left out by the more “equitable” universally mandated pass/fail systems advocated by universities such as Harvard and Yale. Unless these students’ circumstances are somehow accounted for in a universal pass system, it is difficult to argue that simply mandating universal pass/fail would produce the most equitable result. Similar to the system in place at UC Berkeley, the new evaluation system should allow students to opt for a grade. However, that grade must be evaluated under a revised syllabus that reflects the current situation.

Faculty must clearly outline and communicate the changes to their syllabi, and make accommodations for students who wish to receive a letter grade at the end of a course. These changes would not be without precedent. Certain classes already include arrangements for students who choose to receive honors or graduate school credit. These adjustments include having students opt for a final exam or project that is evaluated for a letter grade.

If the university truly remains committed to its mission to “create, expand, and impart knowledge” to its students, SMU must communicate changes swiftly and clearly. Given the current circumstances, attempting to uphold our usual grading system is unnecessary and injurious to students and faculty. Default pass/fail is the only system that can adequately address the challenges that the SMU community is collectively facing. Under this system, students who need letter grades should still be accommodated, but only after new grading criteria appropriate to the circumstances are established.

This current situation will pass. SMU, as well as local and national leaders, have taken steps to mitigate the virus’ spread and bring a return to normalcy. With these precautions in place, we must turn our focus to the future after coronavirus. Now, we must all work together to find solutions that will look out for each individual, and help us to collectively emerge from this stronger than before.