Clickability tracking pixel

As Universities Move Online, Some Call for Pass/Fail Grading

Controversies over grading are roiling universities and colleges across the country, as the coronavirus outbreak prompted them to shift to online learning and send most students home to disparate circumstances.

by Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times / March 27, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Zuleika Bravo, a UCLA senior and low-income single mother, has tons to worry about besides grades. The coronavirus outbreak has shut down her young daughter's school, saddling her with new demands to home-school. Her office job has cut hours — and her income — in half.

Under pressure, Bravo wants UCLA to change grading to pass/fail for all students during the upcoming spring quarter so those with myriad pressures like her won't be unfairly disadvantaged.

"We're not all equal," said Bravo, 28, a political science major. "I know I have the ability to get good grades, but given the circumstances I would have to work even harder than before to compete with my colleagues who don't have to worry about a child."

Christian Israelian, a UCLA sophomore, wants letter grades. He's taking three classes next quarter he thinks he can ace and wants to boost his GPA to position himself for law school or a PhD program in geography. He understands the concerns about equity, he said, "but to lump everyone in the same boat doesn't seem fair."

Controversies over grading are roiling universities and colleges across the country, as the coronavirus outbreak prompted them to shift to online learning and send most students home to disparate circumstances. Some students and faculty believe that normal grading practices during these times are deeply unfair to those struggling with housing, food, health, family duties, a safe study space, access to the internet or classes several time zones away.

Others think students should have the freedom to choose between a letter grade or pass/fail, saying that concentrating on academics helps them manage stress and that earning high marks can distinguish them for jobs, scholarships or graduate school. Some need to maintain certain GPAs for financial aid, ROTC programs, transfer to four-year institutions or release from academic probation.

The complex issue has divided higher-education leaders with no consensus in sight.

"This is obviously very complicated," said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 colleges and universities. "I don't think that there will be a one-size-fits-all for this in any way, shape or form either institutionally or for schools or departments."

This spring, grading is no longer as clear as A, B and C. The debate is filled with a hodgepodge of grading terminology. There is pass/fail, pass/not passed, pass/no record, credit/no credit, satisfactory/unsatisfactory and satisfactory/no credit.

Schools even differ on what grade is needed to receive course credit. The University of California requires a C or C-minus to pass an undergraduate course, but allows campuses to choose their threshold. Choosing a pass/no record option means a transcript won't show the class was even taken if a student fails.

And there's disagreement over whether students at campuses with mandatory pass/fail systems can "unmask" their letter grades, which instructors still must keep throughout the term, for graduate school, Latin honor designations or other reasons.

UC Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Barnard, Dartmouth, Smith and MIT are among the schools that have adopted variations of mandatory pass/fail grading for the spring term. Some, such as Berkeley, allow students to request letter grades if desired but don't encourage it, while Columbia, Stanford and Dartmouth bar that option to maintain strict equity.

Other campuses, such as USC, UCLA and Yale University, have chosen not to impose mandatory pass/fail grades on everyone and instead are giving students flexibility to choose that option if desired. Colleges are typically extending deadlines to make the choice and lifting limits on the number of pass/fail courses that can be taken.

Students, meanwhile, are pushing their own ideas. After Columbia adopted a strict pass/fail policy for all, students launched at least three petitions appealing for the right to request grades or urging universal A's. Some Yale students are rallying for a "universal pass" system — featuring a #NOFAILYALE Twitter campaign — to allow all students to pass regardless of class performance.

At Harvard, some students want a "double A" policy to award all students an A or A-minus, which would ensure rough equity for everyone while giving those who need grades access to them. And UC Berkeley student leaders recently passed a resolution calling for "A's for all" to alleviate stress and "ensure that all students have fair access to the university and an equitable academic experience, despite known barriers and challenges."

At the University of California's nine undergraduate campuses, faculty leaders are adopting their own respective policies — most of them allowing students to choose pass/fail grading for more courses during spring term than is normally allowed.

So far, only Berkeley has switched to a default system of pass/not passed for all undergraduates. Students may change to a letter grade until at least May 6, but campus academic leaders asked that they do so only for a "specific purpose," which they don't define or need to approve. They have told students, however, that they intend the default system to be the "norm" this term.

Oliver O'Reilly, Berkeley's Academic Senate chair and a mechanical engineering professor, said faculty leaders made the change to send a message that learning, rather than grades, is most important this semester. De-emphasizing grades at a competitive campus like Berkeley may be hard, he said, but the faculty wanted to protect and support as many students as possible.

"This is a semester unlike any other," he said. "It's an extraordinary time and unfortunately it's not over."

O'Reilly rejected, however, the student proposal to give everyone high grades, earned or not. "'A's for all' doesn't help anyone," he said. "It makes a mockery of the whole grading system."

But even at Berkeley, policies differ. Berkeley Law School has moved to a credit/no credit system for all students. Unlike the undergraduate campus, the law school is not giving grades at all because doing so would defeat the purpose — to lessen stress — of the change, said law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

"I worried that students who were most likely to get high grades would opt for that and then credit would be perceived as a mediocre grade," Chemerinsky said in an email. "This would put pressure on students to retain grades and undermine what we are trying to accomplish."

At UCLA, the issue has sparked deep divisions. Student government leaders debated grading options for more than three hours until past midnight this week during an at-times testy and emotional online meeting of the Undergraduate Students Association Council.

Some council members supported student choice, arguing that working for high grades can be empowering and beneficial to mental health. Shahamah Tariq said many of the international students she represents are racked with uncertainty over whether they can stay in the United States; for them, maintaining their usual academic routines can ease anxiety "when everything else is upside down," she said.

At one point, council member Lily Shaw, who initially pushed for mandatory pass/fail without a letter grade option, got teary-eyed as she urged her colleagues to "support each other over our GPAs." Another student leader, Naomi Riley, grew frustrated at what she saw as insensitivity to marginalized students.

"It's incredibly disappointing," she said. "I definitely want to caution people from calling yourselves allies at this moment."

Robert Blake Watson, the undergraduate student body president, said he supports a pass/no record policy even though he thinks he could raise his GPA with letter grades, which could help him with scholarships for law school. He ultimately supported the ability of students to access their letter grades but remains ambivalent about that option because he believes it could disadvantage those who lack his privileges.

Reflecting the division, the council split, 7-6, on whether to support a blanket pass/no record grading system for all students with no ability to request grades. But members ultimately supported a blanket system with access to grades so they could stand undivided in their policy recommendations to campus officials.

On Thursday, however, the UCLA Academic Senate declined to impose a mandatory pass/no pass policy for spring quarter. Instead, the faculty decided to allow students to select the pass/no pass option for as many courses as desired — normally there is a one-course limit per term — and extend the deadline.

"Our main goal was to enable students to make a decision as to what they thought was in their own best interests," said Michael Meranze, the Academic Senate chair.

Mitchell of the American Council on Education said the bigger question is what happens with grades after spring term. While the council is not recommending any particular grading policies, he said, members are working to "shape a collective institutional response" on how colleges and universities should handle spring term transcripts with wide grading variations.

California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, for instance, is co-leading a council task force on how to handle transfers to four-year institutions during this time. Students may not have letter grades this year to help establish minimum required GPAs for transfers — 2.0 for Cal State and 2.4 for California applicants to UC campuses.

Mitchell said the council also will tackle the issue of graduate and professional schools, which are adopting different policies. Harvard Medical School, for instance, has announced it will accept pass/fail grades for spring term only if the applicant's institution did not offer letter grades. Berkeley Law School, however, "will be very flexible" and credit/no credit "certainly will be accepted under these circumstances," Chemerinsky said.

O'Reilly said he plans to assess applicants to Berkeley's mechanical engineering graduate program with a particular eye toward how they dealt with the coronavirus crisis.

"One thing I look for is how did you persevere when times were tough because you need that quality to do research," he said. "It's not about falling down, it's about how you pick yourself up. It's only by failing and succeeding that you learn anything."

©2020 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

Platforms & Programs