AMAC Exclusive - By David Lewis Schaefer
As competitive colleges and universities continue to admit underqualified applicants in order to adhere to their schools’ “equity” agenda, those students are predictably struggling and receiving poor grades. But now elite universities are offering a solution to that problem too: make course grading more subjective, or even eliminate objective grading completely.
After the Supreme Court ruled in the 2023 Fair Admissions case that accepting students based on race was both illegal and unconstitutional, administrators at numerous competitive schools intimated that they would find ways to circumvent the decision. In the name of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” their goal was still to favor members of selected “minorities” over better qualified white or Asian-American applicants.
One way to skirt the Court’s ruling was to eliminate the requirement that applicants submit scores on the SAT or ACT. This made it harder to compare the qualifications of different applicants, thus leaving more discretion in the hands of admissions officers.
But this strategy also exacerbated the “mismatch” problem, meaning that underqualified admittees to highly selective colleges would find it harder to compete once they matriculated, inducing them either to switch to less demanding majors (ethnic studies or sociology instead of pre-med) or drop out entirely – leaving them worse off than if they had attended a less selective but still meritorious college.
But there’s a new solution for the mismatch problem, or more generally for the problem of underprepared students finding it hard to succeed in college: eliminate or alter the mode of grading for college courses.
A champion of this approach is Peony Fhagen, Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity and Belonging at prestigious Colorado College. She is the director of that school’s Crown Center for Teaching and a leader in establishing the college’s new ADEI (Accessibility, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) plan.
Fhagen is a scholar of something called “Nigrescence theory” (more on this later) who reports having published “quantitative research on racial identity in the United States.” Besides working on a textbook on the psychology of “multicultural dynamics,” she has also begun a new project on “antiracist grading systems,” a theme on which she lectures at other campuses.
According to the bio accompanying one of Fhagen’s most recent speaking events, although “antiracist pedagogy” is now “a major focus of teaching and learning centers” on American campuses, it fails to explain how to overcome the racist character of “traditional grading systems,” even though those systems originate “in white supremacy.”
“Letter grades and point systems associated with traditional grading in college-level courses that sort and rank students into hierarchies,” maintains Fhagen, “promote such problematic qualities as perfectionism, either/or thinking, and individualism.” By contrast, “the demand for more inclusive, equitable, and anti-oppressive educational experiences in higher education” has led to the invention of “three new grading systems: ungrading, contract grading, and specifications grading.”
Fhagen, it should be noted, is not the only advocate of alternative methods of grading. In Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), Notre Dame anthropologist Susan D. Blum maintains that “many educators” now believe that that all grades should be abolished.
Short of that, both “contract grading” and “specifications grading” entail an advance agreement between a course instructor and his students on which assignments a student may choose to complete. Students receive comments on each written submission but without a grade, and course grades are subject to final negotiation between instructor and student.
Without entering into the merits of such systems (the present author remains highly dubious), what is distinctive about Fhagen’s take is her claim that adopting such alternative systems is necessary in order to banish “racism” from the classroom.
In reality, not only are Fhagen’s accusations against “traditional” grading nonsensical, the abolition of grades may be particularly detrimental to less-prepared students, as Robert Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley (Mich.) State University who attempted that system, has reported.
“You’re always going to find variations in students’ preparation in college-level courses, but in ungrading, those variations seem to be amplified, because it’s all based on self-evaluation,” he writes. “Therefore, I’m not sure that ungrading is serving the students who work hard but don’t have the best grasp on the basic tools of the discipline as well as it does those whose grasp is stronger.”
Moreover, he adds, “Ungrading might unwittingly contribute to equity gaps in higher education, particularly in the STEM subjects,” since “removing marks” from assignments “may take away the guideposts that learners from less privileged backgrounds might need as they navigate college courses. It’s as if someone took away all the signs in an airport in a foreign country and then dropped a nonnative-language speaker into it… those signs are helpful, and it’s hard to enjoy anything if you’re lost.”
Although Talbert’s overall estimation of ungrading is mixed, his point about how such a system particularly disadvantages less-prepared students – presumably including the core of the “minority” members whose interests Fhagen claims to represent – rings true.
More generally, however, the qualities of traditional grading that Fhagen identifies as racist – perfectionism (that is, striving to come as close as possible to perfection in one’s work, in and out of school), “either/or thinking” (i.e., a thing cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time), and “individualism” (understood as the desire for individual achievement, rather than having one’s accomplishments submerged in those of a group) – lie at the very core of what generates initiative and dynamism in a society – to say nothing of the rational pursuit of truth.
While stress on the benefits of individual achievement may well be more characteristic of modern Western, liberal societies, inspired by the teachings of such philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu, the fact that so many individuals of diverse national, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds have succeeded in these societies belies any claim that people whose ancestors migrated here from other sorts of society are therefore foreclosed from succeeding in them.
Indeed, it is precisely the possibilities that the more or less classically liberal regimes in the U.S. and Western Europe offer for personal advancement – in contrast to monarchical, feudal, tribal, or dictatorial regimes – that continues to attract so many immigrants, legal and illegal, to these shores.
In order to understand Fhagen’s blatantly ideological claims, one must recall her professed expertise in “nigrescence theory.”
“Nigrescence,” according to a 1994 article by one William E. Cross, Jr., published in Science Direct, is “a French term which means the process of becoming Black.” Those who profess expertise in the field “attempt to capture the stages that African Americans traverse when experiencing a major shift in their racial self-identification.”
We learn from Wikipedia that Cross, born in 1940, was the inventor of the concept of Nigrescence whose work focused on combatting “the negative effects of Western thought and science on the psychology of Black Americans,” specifically by pursuing “psychological liberation under conditions of oppression” through the development of a distinctive black “identity.”
In other words, Cross, along with his follower Fhagen, is an “identitarian” – one who would steer blacks and other self-designated “minority” members into what liberal political scientist Yascha Mounk calls “The Identity Trap” – the title of Mounk’s 2023 book by the same, which I warmly recommend.
But how can black Americans possibly benefit from being taught to reject “science” or objectivity for the sake of having a distinct identity? Is it not in the very nature of science to be open to investigation and inquiry by all human beings, without regard to any attributes other than their having rational faculties?
Identitarianism is a ruinous path for underprivileged citizens seeking to advance in life – or anyone else – to follow. But it can be terribly advantageous for self-interested racial “advocates” like Cross (whose work has earned him all sorts of awards) and his epigone Fhagen. Colleges that follow their advice are doing all their students, whatever their socioeconomic or racial background, a grave disservice.
But the war on testing and grading, advanced in the name of “diversity,” continues apace in other areas of American life besides the academy. In a little-noticed move in 2022, the U.S. State Department announced a fundamental change in the process of admitting candidates to eligibility for positions in the Foreign Service.
In a press release, the Department explained that in order to meet Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s “goals to modernize American diplomacy, win the competition for talent, and ensure that all applicants can present a full picture of their individual qualifications,” the Department would move “away from the Foreign Service Officer Test” (the FSOT, a demanding examination that had been largely unchanged in form since the 1930s) “as a pass/fail gateway test,” in favor of “a more holistic” selection process that would “focus on a candidate’s education and experience.”
Starting that June, all candidates would “proceed to the Qualification Evaluations Panel (QEP) where their performance on the FSOT will be one factor taken into consideration along with the Personal Narratives submitted during the registration process.” The QEP then “reviews each candidate’s work history, education, experience, and six brief written narratives based on FS core precepts,” all of which supposedly promise to “give the Department a more balanced view of candidates who will be selected for the next phase of the selection process, the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA).”
Those familiar with the evasions long used by colleges and universities to justify racial preferences in their admissions and hiring processes will rightly smell a rat here. In fact, the Department’s announcement of the new selection process even acknowledges that “taking a holistic view” as will now be done “introduces subjectivity” into the review process, which “may also lead to some inconsistencies in assessment.”
One doesn’t have to read very closely between the lines to recognize that the de-emphasis on test performance, combined with the term “holistic” and the reliance on unspecified “written narratives based on foreign service core precepts,” are just euphemisms for racial and ethnic favoritism. Ironically, this is a return to the way that Foreign Service Officers were selected prior to the FSOT, when those who won the coveted posts were largely white graduates of elite prep schools that funneled their “best and brightest” to the Ivies, which themselves discriminated on the basis of race and religion, only with different groups now being favored.
It is to be hoped that some group akin to the organizations that challenged the use of racial preferences on behalf of citizens’ equal legal and Constitutional rights in the Fair Admissions case will take a closer look at the Foreign Service’s new recruitment policy – and any other system of racial preferences now being foisted on the American people. In the case of the Foreign Service, the entire nation’s well-being depends on the recruitment of those individuals objectively best qualified to represent us.
David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.