Against Number Grades in the Age of Coronavirus

Opinions Editor Jonathan Schneiderman makes the case for ESNU or Pass/Fail grades in the 2020 Spring Term.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Earlier this evening, Student Union President Vishwaa Sofat sent out a survey to the student body, asking students to give their opinions about what kind of grading system ought to be used for the second term of the 2019-2020 school year.

The survey presents four options: a normal 1-100 scale; an A+, A, A-, etc. scale, with each of those letter-symbol combinations representing a number, which would then go on students’ transcripts and be factored into students’ averages; an E+, E, E-, etc. scale, with the letters of the A-F scale replaced with the E, S, N, and U of first marking period grades; and a Pass/Fail scale, with binary options and no numbers.

The survey explains that the Department of Education only allows for Pass/Fail and number grades to be printed on report cards; thus under the current policy, using, for example, an A-F scale without number equivalents is not possible.

The survey also included a fifth “Other” option, with a space to write an explanation of one’s “Other.” This is the text of my explanation:

“I think ESNU, without pluses and minuses, is probably the best option. If that means changing DOE rules, DOE rules should change. It's a pandemic; that tends to bring about change.

Students are currently dealing with (1) a myriad of personal practical and emotional challenges, such as not being able to get fresh air and both being and adjusting to being cooped up in a relatively small and sometimes very small space with the same group of people, which will only get worse as students' acquaintances, friends, and family members start to get afflicted by the virus; (2) specific challenges posed by the transition to remote learning, such as having to juggle a lot of new platforms while relying solely on them; and (3) the enormous stress, even absent personal affectedness or logistical difficulty, of living with the awareness that there is a global pandemic and that we are currently in the one of the worst-affected places on earth, and the very reasonable dread and feeling that the world is falling apart that that situation engenders. In light of that, I think that performance should be heavily discounted. If students are forging ahead, that's basically enough, as far as I'm concerned. In addition, I am of the opinion that grading is itself a less useful barometer of performance (such as it is) than it normally is on account of the simple, unfortunate, and undeniable fact that cheating is dramatically easier than it used to be.

That said, I have qualms with going full-on Pass/Fail. I think there is value in incentivizing students to keep trying not only to show up but to be engaged, and I think Pass/Fail removes that possibility. Hence, ESNU sans the superfluous-or-worse symbols.

Once you start adding more differentiation, though, you put more stress on students than is necessary, helpful, or healthy. I think it makes sense to want students to try to get an E rather than an S. I do not think it makes sense to make students want to get an E+ rather than an E, or an E rather than an E-. At that point, you've gone beyond making students want to engage and into getting students to stress about the fine quality of their work in the middle of a global pandemic. That's not reasonable.

In general, I am in favor of more stress at Stuyvesant. As my friends and colleagues on The Spectator's editorial board will readily tell you, I am fond of saying in arguments and discussions like this that I came here because I wanted a pressure cooker and that I want to maintain this pressure cooker. I am generally skeptical of rules governing how much work teachers should give, how teachers should grade, etc. I want my teachers to give me as much work as they feel I should be doing in their classes. I want them to pile on assignments, and I get satisfaction out of having a heavy workload—both because I enjoy it for itself and because it makes me feel like Alexander Hamilton in the song “Non-Stop.”

Or, as my fellow editor Oliver Stewart once put it, “Jonathan wants to be bullied by his teachers.”

But I digress into Broadway and anecdote. Central to my general position about the workload at Stuyvesant is the element of choice: we chose to come here, and we should deal with that. Generations of Stuyvesant students have gone through the same, and the fact that some students want to have a more reasonable workload doesn’t mean that I should be deprived of the environment for which I knowingly and deliberately signed up back in the spring of eighth grade. But my general framework doesn’t apply here. Stuyvesant’s juniors chose to be Stuyvesant juniors; no one chose to be living in the middle of a pandemic. It just happened, thanks to a vengeful God assisted by a crack team of incompetent government officials. The burden of this act of God should be decreased as much as possible.

Yes, we should try to maintain normalcy, both for the sake of everyone’s continued mental health right now and for the sake of our collective ability to transition back to genuine normalcy when this is over. But there is a difference between maintaining normalcy and expecting the same of people as one would in normal times. Grading systems that differentiate between the upper, middle, and lower ends of the “E” spectrum go too far toward the latter pole.

There is, of course, the practical difficulty of the Department of Education not allowing ESNU grades to go unadulterated onto transcripts. If this cannot be changed, I would support Pass/Fail over the options that have been made available to us on this survey in a heartbeat.”