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Pass/fail plan is off target

Column by Mark Kantrowitz

The Committee on the First-Year Program proposes the elimination of second term pass/no-credit grading for freshmen because of a vague impression that "some" students take extremely heavy loads. They suppose that these freshmen overload because of a desire to get as much as possible "out of the way while on pass/no-credit."

Do all freshmen abuse pass/no-credit, or is it only a small fraction of the class? The CFYP report states that they "believe that most students should have completed much of the transition from high school to MIT during the first semester" -- using general words like believe, most, much -- and glosses over whether other students need second term pass/no-credit to adjust to MIT.

The proposals presented in the report are not well thought out, with the faculty themselves divided on the issues. Why is there this insane insistence on presenting half-formed and conflicting proposals? The CFYP recommendation to spread the freshman requirements beyond the first year is completely unsubstantiated by their report. Moreover, other committees, such as the Science and Engineering Working Group, do not seem to share their vision (or hallucination) for the first year. Is the CFYP proposing the changes just for the sake of doing something? A proposal of this magnitude must support its conclusions with unambiguous facts, not supposition.

For example, the only statistics cited by the report point out that 45 percent of second-term freshmen took more than 55 units in a recent year while only 12 percent of sophomores did so. The difference, a third of the class, might possibly be overloading. For the benefit of this "some," the committee proposes neglecting the majority of students. Furthermore, the CFYP has failed to demonstrate that this "some" actually isn't handling the load.

We need a more flexible system which is able to meet the diversity of backgrounds the freshmen bring to MIT. One doesn't need data to know that some students need the second term to bring them up to speed, while others would benefit from an earlier transition to grades. The proposal should identify those students who have adjusted to the pace and pressure of MIT, and place only those students on grades. That way the needs of all students could be met.

The freshman year is a time for intellectual and social adjustment, to ease the impact of the transition from high school to MIT. The classes that most students take during the first year -- the core curriculum, science distribution, and humanities distribution subjects -- provide students with a firm grounding in the subject matter that serves as the basis for later studies. It is the nature of these classes to be preparatory.

The problem with pass/no-credit arises when a freshman overloads and takes advanced classes on pass/no-credit. Neglecting those classes impairs future studies. But if a freshman is ready to take an advanced class, aren't they ready for grades?

The core curriculum, including the Science and Humanities Distribution subjects, should all be graded pass/no-credit, while the advanced classes and electives should have letter grades, irrespective of when the student takes them. This proposal is flexible enough to meet the needs of the spectrum of freshman backgrounds, and since graduate schools and employers are mainly interested in advanced courses, it eliminates the major problem with hidden grades.

Some faculty fear that classes designated as pass/no-credit might develop "second-class" reputations. But don't the core, HUM-D, and SD classes already have reputations as "gut" courses? Raising standards for a passing grade from a "D" to a "C" would ensure that those who passed had performed sufficiently well, and would place the burden on the faculty to improve their classes.


Mark Kantrowitz, a senior in the Departments of Mathematics and Philosophy, is a contributing editor of The Tech.