ASWC petition calls for equitable grading system during COVID-19 pandemic

Alissa Antilla, Editor-in-Chief

With Whitman College’s move to online distance-learning, students and faculty are reconsidering the college’s current grading system. 

As it stands, Whitman operates on a standard A, B, C, D, F grading scale. However, students’ education has been radically altered as classes have moved online. In response, many demand a shift in grading to accommodate the shift in education. 

The Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) presented a new model for grading in a petition sent via email to the student body on Saturday, March 21, calling on faculty to adopt an A, A- or F model of grading as the most equitable approach. 

Titled “Equitable Grading and Active Participation at Whitman During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” the petition addressed the inequities that are likely to arise during online distance-learning. 

“This decision [to move to online distance-learning] and the COVID-19 pandemic has severe educational consequences that will impact students drastically and inequitably for the remainder of the academic year,” the petition, drafted by seniors Cameron Conner and Isaiah Banta, read. 

The petition elaborated on two problems that online distance-learning in combination with Whitman’s current grading system is likely to produce: inequities in evaluation and inequities in expectation. 

The petition stated that it is impossible to translate a small, in-person class environment to a virtual classroom. Additionally, the novelty of teaching or engaging in an online class is likely to give rise to miscommunication and confusion. As a result, “it will be practically impossible for all faculty to fairly, equitably, and consistently determine what is ‘exemplary’ work in a virtual classroom,” according to the petition. 

Chair of the Student Life Committee and Mina Schwabacher Professor of Mathematics Albert Schueller commented on the difficulties of moving from an in-person learning environment to one on a screen. 

“Nuance matters, tone of voice, sort of being able to see the whole room at once and feel what people are feeling about various topics,” Schueller said. 

Conner echoed Schueller’s thoughts. 

“How does participation transform fundamentally when you’re dealing with 30 or however many people on one tiny screen compared to when you’re in a Whitman classroom?” Conner said. “And that’s what we’re trying to say is it’s truly impossible to translate the same kind of educational experience that we expect and try to cultivate in a Whitman classroom into an online virtual situation.”

Schueller believes that the shift to online learning will impact students’ quality of education. 

“I think it’s a lower-quality experience across the board, especially in discussion kinds of classes,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can, but I don’t think it’s going to be a drop-in replacement for what we had before spring break.”

Schueller noted that courses with lab components as well as art, theater and dance courses will be especially altered by moving online. He said that some courses will fit the online learning model better than others.

While Schueller acknowledged that precise grading is difficult enough as is, he foresees grading to be particularly challenging in an online environment. 

“I’ve always found it personally challenging to assign grades to sort of parse one student’s performance between say a B+ and an A-,” Schueller said. “And now that we’re in this new regime and students are home dealing with their own issues and we have technology in the mix and shifting pedagogical approaches and shifting course goals and all of that, it seems even harder to figure out whether a student should get say an A- or a B+.” 

Conner also spoke to the challenges of grading in the current environment. 

“Not only are students dealing with a lot of adversity right now, but so are faculty,” Conner said. “A lot of them have never dealt or engaged in online classes before. And not only is that hard to facilitate, but it’s really hard to know what exemplary work looks like.”

The petition also considered the inequities in expectation that are likely to arise during online distance-learning. 

“Online distance-learning will inevitably favor those with material resources, who reside in certain geographic locations, without responsibility for child, elder, and/or disability care work, and who are not themselves personally affected by a COVID-19 related illness,” the petition read. 

The petition stated that many students may struggle to access technology, WiFi or time off from at-home responsibilities or work in order to engage in classes at an exemplary level. 

“Upon returning home, it cannot be expected that students will be allowed to ignore the responsibilities of their household and the needs of their wider communities in order to focus exclusively on their education,” the petition read. 

Conner said that many students are feeling very scared about the coming semester academically, knowing that they are going home and unable to have the space, resources and technology they need to do their work at the same level they could before. 

Schueller elaborated on the challenges that come with learning at home during a global pandemic.

“The other big issue is, what are students dealing with back home as they self-isolate and they social distance?” Schueller said. “You know, they may have parents that have been laid off because of this. They may have children that are home – school-age children that are home – because of this. They may be expected to do things around the house that they would not have been expected to do when they were living on campus.”

“Isolation is psychologically challenging. The existential threat that we face is challenging,” he added. “All of those things I think are going to reduce engagement. Make it challenging, anyway, for students to engage.”

Banta added that many tasks typically taken care of by Whitman will now fall to students. Whitman provides students meals, for example, via the Cleveland Commons dining hall, and they maintain cleanliness and sanitation in student spaces through the work of custodial staff.

“Those are all tasks that are now going to have to turn to [students], and so different households will have different capabilities of being able to provide similar resources to their kids,” Banta said, “and I’m thinking about those students who will need to have more of that burden of responsibility to contribute to their household, something that is not wrong or is not bad in and of itself, but to expect the same level of course commitment or mental bandwidth from those students as the students who maybe have more economic resources – the students who won’t be stressing about money.” 

The petition also pointed out that the lack of public spaces and on-campus resources restricts access to students seeking quiet spaces to work. 

Conner spoke to the challenges that limited campus resources puts on students, providing another reason to alter the grading system. 

“The college has a responsibility to provide for the welfare of its students,” Conner said. “It can’t do that to the same extent when they are living away from Walla Walla and when they are moving away from Whitman as when they are here.”

“There’s going to be no mental health services,” he added, “there’s not going to be a 24-hour health center, there’s not going to be that quiet space provided by the library, office hours are going to be hard to get to, tutoring is going to be hard to get to, disability services are going to be harder to get to,” he added. “So the college in some sense has a responsibility to make up for that. And this is one of those ways where it can grant some leniency in truly what is a crisis situation.” 

The petition also stated that differing time zones will negatively impact students’ academic experience as they have to “‘attend’ virtual classes at hours far beyond the traditional academic day.”

Additionally, the petition recognizes the possibility of students contracting the coronavirus or caring for those who do have the virus. 

“Since Whitman’s current situation arose in response to the threat of a highly contagious virus, the College’s response should take into account the potential of contracting that virus even as they transition to online classes from home,” the petition stated. 

Schueller pointed out that while at Whitman, students’ overall environments were more or less at the same level. Going home introduces a wide array of various experiences. 

“When we were all at Whitman, there was still inequity, but in some way, our environment was much more homogeneous,” Schueller said. “We were all living either in dormitories or in off-campus housing. We were all sort of in the same shared experience. We all had sort of the same demands or certainly a much smaller variety of demands on our time. We were much more able to focus on our education because that’s why we were all here in Walla Walla.”

“That variation has suddenly increased dramatically, and I think a flattening of the grade system may be an appropriate response to that,” he added. 

Banta echoed Schueller’s belief that changing the grading system is the action Whitman needs to take during online distance-learning. Banta suggested that grading on a comparative model – Whitman’s current method of grading – is not equitable during this time. He believes that Whitman needs to consider the vast variety of experiences within the student body. 

“The whole point of a standardized grading system is that it is comparative, it’s a comparative model, and so with students having vastly different home environments, that’s going to change,” Banta said. “So that’s the main reason for the grading system change that we request.”

The petition noted that a Pass/Fail system would also be equitable, but not ideal, since it may reflect poorly on graduate school or job applications. Additionally, the distinction between an A and A- would provide some motivation for students and allow professors to give feedback on students’ performance as well as recognize merit. 

The petition was sent to Faculty Chair and Associate Professor of Mathematics Barry Balof on Monday, March 23. As of Wednesday, April 1, it has 920 student signatures and 21 faculty signatures. 

To actually change the grading scale, the faculty needs to vote on a motion. 

In an email to The Wire, Balof said that the Board of Review was tasked with assessing faculty thoughts surrounding the issue and creating a motion for faculty consideration. The motion will be voted on at their next faculty meeting. 

“Our committee continues to work under the ethos that community health and wellbeing, with full considerations of equity, are foremost in informing whatever plans we put forth,” Balof said in his email. 

In drafting the petition, Conner and Banta wanted to start the conversation surrounding the college’s grading system during such extreme circumstances. They appreciate the engagement from the student body and faculty alike, and they fully trust in the faculty to make the right decision.  

“And at the end of the day, people are dying and we shouldn’t be talking about grades that much,” Conner said. 

The Petition for Equitable Grading and Active Participation at Whitman During the COVID-19 Pandemic can be found here