The upheaval in day to day life brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for students to rely on the traditional letter grade system to gauge their abilities. 

Many of them are concerned about the effect letter grades received during lockdowns will have on their entry to graduate and professional schools, ability to obtain scholarships, and secure jobs.

Because of this, many students across colleges and universities in the US are advocating for the extension of pass/fail grading to the fall semester.

Many believe this less stringent grading will help alleviate the toll that has been taken on students’ mental health by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some colleges have adjusted accordingly. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill changed its grading system for the fall semester as early as August, followed by the California Community Colleges in September.

Retaining the Grading System

However, many universities have refused this earlier accommodation. The University of Maryland College Park, for one, declined a petition by more than 7,800 students to extend previous pass/fail grading for an additional semester.

Senior vice president and provost Mary Ann Rankin told students in an email that such a grading system suffers from pitfalls because students are at risk of not fully understanding the course material.

“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,” Rankin explained.

She added that students who are taking their courses in preparation for higher-level coursework may also struggle with their education later, and students with low letter grades that are admitted into limited enrollment programs may not be prepared for their major — setting them back in the time and money that went into their efforts.

College Park officials have instead offered to extend the deadline to withdraw from a course to November 30. Rankin believes that this gives students an additional option for a class where they are struggling, but does not carry the same risk as pass/fail grading.

Earlier this month, the College of Charleston also announced that it would not be implementing a pass/fail grading system for its fall semester and extended the course withdrawal period as well.

Other universities that have refused to apply the change to the fall semester include the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Other Grading Options

Some institutions have worked on striking a balance between the two systems. The University of Michigan now allows undergraduates to choose between traditional letter grades for each course, or select a system that records “pass” for letter grades A to C and “no-record COVID” for Ds or below. 

Students also have the option of dropping a class until the end of the term without it appearing on the transcript.

Pennsylvania State University extended a similar alternative grading system to the fall term.

The effects of these decisions will be felt by students long after they leave college. Without a blueprint to adhere to in these troubled times, the full effect of different policies implemented by various institutions across the country remains to be seen.

The instability caused by the pandemic will continue bearing down on institutions that seek to strike a balance between accommodating the needs of students struggling during an uncertain time while also properly preparing them academically for their future academic and professional lives.