US students battle institutions over extension to pass-fail

Students are lobbying for extensions to the pass-fail grading system that was widely adopted earlier this year, but most universities are proving less lenient than they were in spring

December 1, 2020
Pass or fail exam
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Many colleges adopted pass-fail grading policies in the spring term to give students breathing room amid Covid-19 disruptions, and now students are again lobbying for such policies for the current term.

Some institutions gave their students this grace months ago; some have heeded more recent calls for it. Yet, overall, students seeking pass-fail policies this term are encountering much more opposition from their institutions, including from faculty members.

Opponents of extended pass-fail policies don’t try to argue that this turned out to be a typical term. But they say that pass-fail grading policies can do more harm than good in terms of student success. Some also say that policies that involve letting students change their grades far into the semester are unethical. Proponents of pass-fail still encourage students to do as well as they can but want to give them options.

The College of Charleston recently said it would not extend the spring pass-fail policy to the current term, as urged by many students. In a campus message explaining the decision, provost Suzanne Austin and Simon Lewis, professor of English and speaker of the faculty senate, wrote that they were “confident that extending the deadline for withdrawing from a course will better assist students who struggled academically because of the pandemic in fall 2020”.

Charleston’s analysis of midterm grades “shows a notable increase of As, Bs and Cs as compared to previous years past, and, in turn, a higher combined grade point average across the entire student body”, Professors Austin and Lewis wrote, calling their decision the “right one” if not the “universally popular one…Despite the current stress levels, we see no reason to anticipate a sudden decline in this achievement level.”

The change in grading “was never intended as a long-term, multi-semester strategy, especially for major, minor and general education coursework”, they added. “This is why it was not adopted for the summer 2020 sessions − with the ongoing understanding of the importance of earning grades for the benefit of one’s major of study, competitive internships, scholarships and awards, graduate program admission and various employment opportunities.”

Faculty members, meanwhile, “have been encouraged to be flexible with their assignments, attendance policies and grading, and that flexibility has resulted in some very positive outcomes during a difficult time”.

Nearby Clemson University and the University of South Carolina have made similar decisions, despite demands from students.

Elsewhere, Baylor University in Texas said it would take a student senate resolution in favour of pass-fail grades “under advisement”. Northern Kentucky University told students last week that it would not adopt the pass-fail policy students are asking for, either, as the “traditional grading structure is the option that best leads to student success”.

At North Dakota State University, the faculty senate last week tabled a student government-backed proposal to extend that institution’s typical September pass-fail deadline to the end of the autumn term.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also denied a student push to extend the already-extended pass-fail selection period beyond the last day of classes on 17 November.

Carolina’s autumn semester 2020 grading policy “gave undergraduate students the option to designate any of their courses as pass-fail” through 17 November, said Leslie Minton, a spokesperson, and “provided more flexibility than the university’s standard pass-fail policy”, which limits students to only one pass-fail course per term and requires students to choose pass-fail within the first five days of class.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is resisting general pass-fail requests from student groups.

“Pass-fail grading can have negative impacts on everything from student scholarship eligibility to postgraduate education,” said Meredith McGlone, a university spokesperson.

Instead of pass-fail, Madison is encouraging students concerned about their grades to reach out to their advisers to discuss options, which include appealing for a pass-fail grade for a specific course based on personal hardship.

But what counts as personal hardship in a pandemic, especially a deeply inequitable pandemic, as the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment has described it? That’s what a student-led petition at Madison seeking a broad pass-fail policy for undergraduates asks.

“Just like last semester, we as students have faced many challenges attending school during the pandemic. Taking classes from home is incredibly difficult,” as is having diminished peer support, the petition says. “With the stress of the pandemic and the move online this semester, it is important for University of Wisconsin-Madison to support its undergraduate students however they can…This is a kindness we can all benefit from.”

Madison is also facing pressure from all Big Ten student body presidents, who have asked their institutions to adopt comprehensive pass-fail or satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading options, considering how the autumn has played out. A recent letter from the presidents to the Big Ten Academic Alliance and administrations cites student mental health concerns and student survey results in favour of pass-fail grading in demanding a “more inclusive grading model”.

“Our universities have repeatedly mentioned the abnormality of this semester as well as the many stressors facing students, yet [they] have failed to take action to reduce these stressors,” the letter says. “We request that you promote equity, prioritise students’ well-being, and uplift the student experience within institutions of higher learning during this period.”

Some institutions are listening. Earlier this month, the University of Michigan announced a new grading policy for the autumn and winter terms, under which undergraduates may choose to keep their traditional letter grades for each course, or select “pass” for A-C grades and “no record Covid” for Ds or below. Students may also drop a class until the end of the term without it appearing on their transcript.

In a campus memo, provost Susan Collins said: “We recognise the enormous stress that comes with balancing courses, the realities of Covid-19, and the myriad other events that have shaped the term.” The grade modification is about giving students “additional flexibility to successfully complete the semester and remain on a path toward their goals”.

Michigan urges students to discuss the possible implications of their decisions with their advisers. Students have until July to opt in to the grading policy for autumn and until next November for winter grades, so there is time to weigh options.

Pennsylvania State University also recently extended its spring opt-in alternative grading system to the autumn term, to “provide flexibility to undergraduate students who may be facing significant challenges academically due to…the ongoing coronavirus pandemic”.

Students may keep their letter grades or elect to have one or more grade replaced with those that have no impact on their grade point average: satisfactory, pass or no grade. The deadline is 12 January, and the university has encouraged students to talk their choices through with their advisers.

“We know this pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for many in our community, and we are committed to helping our students and faculty succeed,” provost Nick Jones said in an announcement. “Penn State’s student senators successfully advocated on behalf of their peers and constituents with the faculty senate.”

Professional schools are removed from pass-fail conversations as well, but even these programmes have been impacted by Covid-19, with implications for student performance. Above the Law recently reported that law students in a civil procedures course section at New York University were asking for pass-fail because they’ve had three different professors this term. There is no direct link to Covid-19, with the original professor reportedly suffering a fall, but the pandemic cannot have helped the situation.

“We have no coherent syllabus, and it is unclear which cases and concepts we are expected to have covered,” says a letter signed by a majority of students in the class. “This is exacerbated by TA review sessions that cover material we have not addressed in class. There have also been multiple times where our professors contradict each other.”

A university spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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