Colleges are ditching letter grades this spring, but not all students are on board with 'ungrading'

By SUSAN SVRLUGA | The Washington Post | Published: April 6, 2020

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Niko Savas was trying his best to concentrate on his online classes at Georgetown Law, despite the exhaustion, fever and aches caused by his bout with covid-19.

But the physical sickness wasn't the coronavirus's only toll, he said. He worried for his parents, who also have covid-19, he said, and about the possibility that he unwittingly infected others before he knew he was sick.

He knew classmates who were facing their own burdens, too. Which is why, Savas said, Georgetown University Law Center should eliminate letter grades this spring. With so much out of students' control, he said, "There's no way we could have a system that's fair when we're graded on a curve."

Georgetown Law decided Friday to drop letter grades for students pursuing JD degrees. And hundreds of other colleges and universities have changed their grading policies in response to the pandemic, according to Laura Gibbs, a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma who has been tracking the announcements.

It's the latest sign of how the pandemic has upended higher education, wiping out rituals, structures and rules that have been in place for generations. And it's sparking debates on many campuses, with faculty votes, student petitions and campus-newspaper op-eds arguing for and against new ways to evaluate students.

"Instead of individual instructors thinking, 'What's the most fair, equitable way to grade in my class?'" Gibbs said, "We're now seeing that at an institutional level in a way that is really unprecedented."

Whatever schools decide, there's a lot at stake in the coming months, with grades influencing admissions to graduate and professional schools, scholarships and even some jobs. And the resulting upheaval has led some advocates to push make some of the changes last, or at least use the moment to reevaluate student evaluation.

"Just as COVID-19 has cast a stark and urgent light on the failures of our health care system, our economy and other basic structures of American life, the wave of emergency ungrading allows faculty members to think about whether we ever want to go back to reading papers with half of our thoughts already occupied in justifying the grade we're going to give," Adam Rosenblatt, associate professor of the practice in international comparative studies at Duke University, wrote in the campus newspaper.

On many campuses, professors have the freedom to determine how they judge students' work throughout the term. Some already chose to eschew letter grades.

In a phone interview, Rosenblatt said he has found it transformative to not grade individual projects. Students are more apt to take risks, he said, if they're not guessing what will persuade him to give out an A. His students get detailed, nuanced feedback instead.

But at the end of the course, most schools require professors to provide letter grades. It's an efficient summary, easily recorded, that can be compared across courses and institutions. When the virus upended campus life, students across the country, including Savas at Georgetown Law, started pushing for that requirement to be waived. Students were feeling "beyond desperate and abandoned," Savas said.

One of Savas' classmates said she has been unable to contact her father in South Korea and has begun to check death records there. She is preparing to move to Los Angeles to work as a driver to help her mother, an immigrant who is in the country illegally and expects to lose her job.

"My case is extreme, I know," the student said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her mother's identity. But other classmates are cancer survivors, immune-compromised, or have lost family members to covid-19.

Last week, Georgetown University officials changed the spring-semester grading policy for undergraduate and graduate students, allowing them to choose between a traditional letter grade or an alternate system with "satisfactory," "credit" (for grades C-, D+ and D) and "no credit." The law school had previously announced a more flexible grading system. But on Friday, the law school faculty decided to impose a mandatory pass/fail standard for all JD students. Students studying for a master of laws degree can opt for a grade or choose pass/fail, school officials said.

"As our students face a very difficult and evolving landscape, our faculty are deeply committed to finding a solution that best serves them all, and especially those who are most vulnerable right now," William M. Treanor, dean of Georgetown Law, said in a written statement last week.

Students at schools from McNeese State University in Louisiana to the University of Utah to Harvard University have pushed for similar changes. Some students have even argued that everyone who completes course requirements should get either an A or an A-plus.

Universities have responded with a variety of temporary solutions. Some are letting students see their grades and then opt for a "pass" instead. Some are letting students opt out of letter grades but requiring students to make that decision earlier in the term. Some are mandating that everything is pass/fail. Some are maintaining the status quo. And at least one school, the New School in New York, has agreed to give all students who pass a course in the spring term an A or A-minus.

The result is a mash-up of new terms and letters this spring, jolting a grading system that has been widely accepted in this country since the late 1800s.

But universities that have chosen leniency have faced complaints, too, including pleas from students who say the good grades they expect to earn, despite the dire circumstances, would help them more.

At Stanford University, the Faculty Senate voted in late March to mandate that most spring quarter work be assessed as "satisfactory" or "no credit." But about 90 percent of students who responded to a student government survey before the vote preferred different grading options, with many favoring a system with more "student agency," the campus newspaper reported.

At Wellesley College in Massachusetts also mandated "satisfactory/no credit" grading for the spring semester. But in the letter announcing the move, the school acknowledged that some students would prefer to have a choice. In a normal semester they would agree, school officials wrote, but this one is anything but. "Let's try to do our work and support one another without being required to make judgments," they wrote.

At Brown University, students have had the option since 1969 of choosing between a letter grade and "satisfactory" or "no credit." But some student activists there joined a coalition from other schools  including the University of Missouri, Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley  calling for a universal-pass policy.

"We don't believe that students need to be worried about their academics right now," said Shivani Nishar, one of the lead organizers at Brown, where about 2,500 undergraduates signed a petition in support. She and Xochi Cartland, another organizer, have heard from students who have lost the library as the only safe, internet-connected place they had to study. Others are facing eviction, job loss, illness or mental health crises.

As a senior applying to doctoral programs, getting an A would be helpful, Nishar said. "But there are more important things we should be prioritizing."

Even at Brown, though, some students lobbied to keep letter grades. Aryana Javaheri, a senior who was born in Iran, said she struggled early in college, with illness coinciding with her parents' divorce. But later, she found her footing academically. She plans on keeping that footing this semester, despite concerns about her relatives in Iran and other stress. And she'll need her good grades when she applies to MD/PhD programs, she said.

"Some of the students that come from a disadvantaged background really do need their letter grades this semester," Javaheri said.

Brown announced temporary changes last week. They didn't eliminate grades but did add flexibility: Students can decide much later in the semester than usual which grading option they prefer. Individual instructors will also be allowed to petition for mandatory "satisfactory/no credit" grading in "exceptional circumstances."

"We have spoken with and heard from so many students on this topic," said Rashid Zia, Brown's dean of undergraduate academics. There is no single approach that could address their range of circumstances, Zia said, so they wanted to give students the power to make their own choices. "These are the most flexible and supportive policies for this moment," he said.