US colleges adopt pass-fail rules, stirring wider reform

Pandemic-driven grading shifts illuminate long-accepted inequities

April 6, 2020
Source: Getty

More than 150 US colleges and universities have adopted a pass-fail grading system for the spring semester, a spontaneous reaction to the coronavirus pandemic that could bring fundamental change across higher education.

The overwhelming majority of the institutions have made pass-fail an option, reflecting student concerns that work worthy of a top grade should not be lost in a bid to protect them from the challenges of finishing online.

A smaller share of the institutions − including some of the nation’s most elite − have made pass-fail mandatory, aiming to protect less-resourced students suddenly thrust into off-campus situations and traumas that compromise their ability to fully address their studies.

Either way, several advocates said, the crisis-driven policy shifts are helping to illustrate their belief that letter grades need a major overhaul, having long provided a false sense of accuracy and objectivity.

“We’re seeing inequities that were kind of swept under the rug before,” said Laura Gibbs, an instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma who has taught in online formats for nearly two decades. “Now they’re clear for all to see, and we’re going to have to do something.”

Beyond the considerable biases associated with letter grades, said Jesse Stommel, a digital learning expert at the University of Mary Washington, there’s evidence that they provide poor signals to other educators and employers while reducing motivation and enjoyment for students and teachers.

“I would do away with grades altogether,” said Dr Stommel, a senior lecturer in digital studies.

Shortly after US colleges and universities began cancelling in-person classes and moving instruction online to avoid Covid-19 infections, a handful of institutions such as Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University announced pass-fail grades as an option.

Dr Gibbs began compiling a list of them, in a bid to convince her own institution to join. She now counts more than 140 offering pass-fail as an option and a dozen, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that made the shift mandatory.

In whatever mix of variations, she said, the number of participating institutions seems sure to grow, reflecting wide concern about the quality of online instruction that is being thrown together for the remainder of the spring semester, with virtually no advance warning.

“I think we’re going to see hundreds or thousands by the time this is all done,” Dr Gibbs said.

The debates within many institutions have been intense. At Mary Washington, Dr Stommel said, a student advocating a pass-fail policy compiled a 47-page document containing hundreds of student stories. Dr Stommel said his rough text analysis of it found common words that include “struggle, depression, and of course, GPA.”

“So, you can see this awful position that students are in,” he said.

Harvard University is one of the elites that implemented a mandatory pass-fail system, although a survey of students by their Undergraduate Council favoured a variant called Double A, in which all grades would be either an A or an A-minus.

The council’s president, James Mathew, a junior in sociology, said that the intent was to avoid diluting anyone’s grade-point average. But, on reflection, he and others realised it “might even still reflect the different privilege among some of our students”, just as an optional pass-fail policy would do.

And, despite adopting mandatory pass-fail for undergraduates, Harvard has been less clear elsewhere. Its medical school applicants were not allowed to submit pass-fail grades if the applicant’s institution allowed a letter-grade option − a position Dr Stommel called “morally bankrupt”. Harvard then revised its policy after questioning by Times Higher Education, but still favoured letter grades “if the option for such grades is offered”.

Among longer-term issues, said David Perry, an academic adviser to history students at the University of Minnesota, institutions need to create systems resilient enough to handle both extended and short-term shutdowns, “without breaking everything the way we are now”.

Individual students also need better emergency options, Dr Gibbs said. Colleges usually have bailout grading policies for students facing a mid-semester crisis, but they are often quite limited and harsh, she said.

“If we’re going to accommodate a whole campus full of students in crisis, why can’t we accommodate individual students in crisis?” Dr Gibbs asked.

But advocates of change should not underestimate the number of places inside and outside of higher education that rely on letter grades, Dr Perry said. They include admissions and transfer policies, graduate and professional programmes, accreditation and financial aid, he said.

“There’s a whole ecosystem based on getting enough A through F grades to then qualify for stuff,” he said. “And that’s going to have to be shifted.”

Getting rid of letter grades entirely isn’t realistic, Dr Stommel said. The goal, he said, should be a broad conversation − with students in a central role − aimed at finding where grades are really necessary, where they are not, and what good alternatives could be created.

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