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You Shall Not Pass/Fail!

pass fail system

US inconsistent grading system is once again in the limelight because of the Covid-19, but then, what in 2020 isn't?

Many colleges and universities have adjusted their admission policies and grading systems in response to disruptions caused by the pandemic – and it poured some oil into the decade-long debate about grade inflation.

For example, a pass/fail system was widely adopted this spring. Students were allowed to choose whether they wanted a letter grade or pass/fail, satisfactory/unsatisfactory, and other dichotomy variations that aren't used in grade-point average calculations and therefore don't affect students' permanent records.

Other schools advised their faculty to be compassionate and flexible in their assessments and reduce the amount of work they expected their students to do.

All those measures are understandable. When pandemic broke out in spring, students and teachers alike had a hard time adjusting to the overnight switch from face-to-face classroom interactions to distant learning.

The Predicament

Indeed, the quality of courses and access to learning materials has decreased, especially for students with poor internet access. Moreover, students quarantined in their homes in a time zone different from the campus have struggled to keep up with the synchronous classes.

Add to that the financial problems young people face amidst the pandemic: many have lost their jobs as waiters and shop assistants financing their college tuition. They had to look for new employment, which in itself is a full-time job that leaves little space for independent learning. At the same time, students' dependence on scholarships increased, so losing the only income source because of the small dent in the GPA would be catastrophic. In the light of all this, no wonder schools have pleaded to grade with grace and prolonged the withdrawal periods – the time when students can drop out of classes without any repercussions.

As Susan M. Collins, University of Michigan Provost, said in a campus memo, "We recognize the enormous stress that comes with balancing courses, the realities of COVID-19, and the myriad other events that have shaped the term."

The Development

However, while some schools have extended this accommodation into the fall semester, others have said that enough is enough.

For example, Suzanne Austin, College of Charleston's Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, explained in her message to the campus community, "that change in grading was never intended as a long-term, multi-semester strategy, especially for major, minor and general education coursework."

She then called this decision the right one, even if not "universally popular," and stressed that students would suffer should the school keep this measure. The lack of grading will inevitably reflect poorly on students' engagement, quality of learning experience, knowledge gained, and subsequently on the opportunities of employment and graduate admissions.

Indeed, as Mary Ann Rankin, Senior Vice President and Provost of the University of Maryland, highlights in her email, "With a pass/fail system, such as the one we adopted last spring, transcripts do not accurately reflect students' mastery of coursework. Use of pass/fail grading can diminish options for graduate school or postgraduate employment for some students and affect accreditation or micro-credentialing for others."

The Question of Grades

However, only the pass/fail system that students keep pushing for is not a far cry from what they have now de facto. Even though the letter scale implies 6 possible grades – A, B, C, D, E, and F – distributed over the bell curve, that's not the reality that students today live in.

As the study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy has shown, the bell-curve situation indeed existed in the 1960s, but since then, the two significant upticks in the number of A-grades awarded have happened. First was the Vietnam era, when A grew from 15 to 30 percent. This sudden generosity is transparent. Poor academic performance would result in young men losing their draft deferments.

However, the second – and by far the bigger – rise in A's awarded began back in the 80s and continues today. The tipping point happened in 1998 when A became the most popular grade nationwide. Today, nearly half of all students get A. Surprisingly, the B remained relatively stable, always keeping around 35%. Instead, the A's share grew at the expense of shrinking C's, D's, and F's.

As Lester Hunt, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aptly pointed out, it's not the inflation, but rather the compression of grades. "Unlike money, grades are a closed system. There is a highest grade, but there's no such thing as a highest price, so what happens is, as grades go up, they get squished at the upper end."

As a result, no nuanced grading is possible; everyone is doing either very well or exceptionally well. There is no wiggle room to separate great students, from good students, from okay students. In fact, it is very like pass/fail already.

Customer Mentality

How did colleges come to this? Unlike the grades students get, the reasons people cite vary widely. Some voices suggest students have become smarter since the 60s – as simple as that.

However, many teachers remark that students become more persistent and aggressive. They demand good grades, citing the "effort they have put in the work" and the "reading they have done for the course." Far from being a final judgment, the grade is seen as the first step of grueling negotiations.

Some say that the extreme emphasis on grades in hiring is a contributing factor. Organizations hiring graduates often have a fixed GPA-limit below which they won't even accept a resume from an applicant. That's why an instructor giving her student a C is seen as a relentless crusher of futures and hopes. Whereas the student himself does everything, from turning to professional paper writers to flat-out begging to up this grade.

However, the most popular version voiced by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy in the original research is the paradigm shift that higher education has experienced. We live in the "education is a service, a student is a customer" era. Teachers are hired and fired based on the student evaluations, which depend primarily on how generously teachers give away A's and B's. Could you blame them for trying to keep their job by keeping students happy?

What Can We Do?

Some universities, like Yale, for example, made attempts to "change the currency" and convert letter grades to the numerical system, with passing results between 60 and 100 (as they already have in many European universities.) That would allow more flexibility and nuance. However, this project was met by vehement student opposition.

The way I see it, the scale hardly matters. It might even be limited to pass/fail, as long as it is applied fairly. It's crucial to change students' perspective on grades. Why, back in the 1960s, C was an average respectable grade that meant that you do okay, while in 2020, receiving a B somehow feels like failure? Our participation-trophy approach to grading and harsh realities of the job market is a toxic mix. A student can graduate from high school without once receiving an honest answer about how good they are at something and how well-prepared they are for their own future.

To rectify the situation, we must shift to a growth mindset. Grades are not a currency. Neither are they a punishment. They are valuable feedback. They exist to inform students about the way they still have to cover to achieve their learning goals.

This is a transition that needs to happen in all of our minds. Students', parents', admission officers', employers', and teachers' – although it seems that teachers are the only ones pushing for the change at it is. They already know they do not judge the student, their intelligence, or even their effort – they give the coordinates for the learning journey. If everyone saw it this way, it wouldn't matter that much which system of coordinates to use.

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