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ASU Student Bar Association voices concerns over new grading system

Students said the opt-in pass/fail system, implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was 'not advocated for by the majority'


ASU students and passersby walk in front of the Sandra Day O'Connor College Of Law on the downtown campus in Phoenix on Monday, Nov. 5, 2017. 

The ASU Student Bar Association released a memo this week outlining students' concerns about the new grading policy for the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

The policy was enacted due to concerns about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on students. It is described in the memo as a "two-tier system," which allows students to decide whether they would like to be graded according to the school's existing grading policy, or opt into a pass/fail system. 

While the law school is now offering the pass/fail option, and is one of the first at ASU to do so, the University is yet to enact an overarching policy and said it does not plan to.

The association's president and third-year law student Molly Podlesny said they decided to write the memo because the school's policies did not reflect the desires of most students. 

Podlesny said that the association met with Dean Douglas Sylvester last week to discuss the grading policy, but the announcement of the decision on the system came as a surprise.

"The policy that the school came up with is totally unprecedented, and we weren't aware it was one of the options that they were considering," Podlesny said. 

A University spokesperson said that ASU supports the law school's current grading policy. They also said that they are encouraging teachers to be more relaxed with grading, adding that many students would like to earn their final grades.

"We do not feel it is appropriate to take that opportunity away from those students while we have other mechanisms in place for students to work with professors on an individual basis to address their own situation," the spokesperson said.

The association's vice president of student leadership, Nicholas Spear, said writing a letter like this is extremely uncommon for their organization, but they were inundated with students reaching out with their concerns and felt the need to bring them to the faculty.

"We're in the trenches with the students hearing everything, and they needed a way to communicate that to the administrators," Spear said. 

The Student Bar Association acts as a student government for the law school. Spear said the organization's job is usually to handle small matters and discuss students' concerns. This year he was hoping to focus on improving safety measures on campus.

The organization received numerous complaints from students about the proposed system. The memo, addressed to ASU President Michael Crow and the law school's deans, outlined the most common ones.

The memo cites students who care for family members, student parents and the increased possibility of cheating on exams as key concerns. 

In a letter sent to law students, Sylvester explained that they have until April 26 to fill out a request form to opt into the pass/fail system. Students can also rescind their request before April 26.

The letter also said that students whose GPA for the spring semester is lower than their cumulative GPA may file a post-grading accommodation request.

Students who opt-in after receiving grades will be required to explain why the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their school performance. Sylvester wrote that students whose GPA has dropped more than 0.25 of a point should expect a "lower standard of review," and those whose GPA dropped less than that amount should expect increased scrutiny.

The Student Bar Association's letter said the policy disadvantages students whose personal lives have been disrupted by the pandemic. Law students also stressed that their GPA and class ranking is crucial for seeking a job and that this system may cause some students to lose their current ranking.

Caroline Lutz, a third-year law student, said that although she was able to manage the transition well, many of her classmates are likely impacted negatively by their responsibilities at home.

"There's definitely some students in my class who have little kids, who have babies, who have adult kids, who have teenagers and now they're all stuck in the same house," Lutz said. "They're holding a crying baby while they're trying to pay attention to law school class."

Spear said that this grading policy will likely put students in a difficult position when making decisions about their academic careers and personal lives.

"I think it's very difficult for students to choose," Spear said. "They want to do what's best for their careers, but maybe they do that to the detriment of what they should be doing at home."

Lutz said that some students may have no choice but to opt for pass/fail because they will be too occupied with caring for loved ones to perform as well as they have in previous semesters.

The college acknowledged that this system is not what all students would like but said their hope is to address everyone's concerns.

"After hearing from students, faculty, and members of the community, we determined that there is no one size fits all grade policy that could satisfy everyone’s concerns," Dean Sylvester wrote an email statement.

Sylvester stated that for some students, their pursuit of a law degree is tied to their mental health, and the school would like to give students the opportunity to decide for themselves.

"Our policy, which may not be what everyone wanted, focuses on student mental health and success." Sylvester wrote. "It does so individually — allowing each individual to make a choice about what is best for their mental or physical health."

The association said that the majority of students supported a complete change to a pass/fail system. They acknowledged, however, that there are some students who do not support this and that their concerns should be accounted for as well.

"They came up with something that, to me, came off as a compromise that just makes no one happy," Podlesny said.

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