Utilizing Pass/Fail Grading During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Utilizing Pass/Fail Grading During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In Student Success, by Will Emerson April 2, 2020

With all of Michigan’s colleges and universities now utilizing some form of remote learning during the COVID-19 crisis, it has become essential for these institutions to explore innovative ways of serving students, while also providing continuity within their academic programs. Currently, many of Michigan’s colleges and universities are considering instituting pass/fail grading, as opposed to traditional letter grading, in order to accommodate students during this difficult time. This move toward pass/fail is supported by Sec. 4509 of The Cares Act, addressing “Satisfactory Progress.”

“Notwithstanding section 484 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1091), in determining whether a student is maintaining satisfactory progress for purposes of title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1070 et seq.), an institution of higher education may, as a result of a qualifying emergency, exclude from the quantitative component of the calculation any attempted credits that were not completed by such student without requiring an appeal by such student.”

Thus, Sec. 4509 allows institutions to exercise their own judgement in awarding credit for students in courses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and many colleges have subsequently taken an opportunity to serve students in this manner. For example, the University of Michigan developed an alternative grading scale for the Winter 2020 semester. According to an FAQ on U-M’s Office of the Registrar webpage, “Faculty will continue to record letter grades, but students will receive either a “P” (Pass) or “NRC” (No Record COVID) grade for A-E graded courses. The grade cut-off for a “P” will be the same as the traditional grade minimum for students to receive course credit, which is a C-. Language will be added to transcripts explaining the university’s policy for the Winter 2020 term.” It is significant to note that students who choose to do so can have their end of course grade converted to letter form under this policy.

According to an Inside Higher Ed article, “In some cases students have advocated for the change. Online petitions asking for shifting university grading structures are plentiful.” These policies are not only flexible, but they also address concerns of equity and access. By providing pass/fail policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, students with limited access to the internet, or who experience distracting study environments at home, may feel less pressured by their coursework. This may in turn help to alleviate some of the broader tensions (health & safety, economic, social isolation) students are experiencing during this unprecedented time.

Considerations in institutional utilization of Pass/Fail options during COVID-19

Pass/Fail policies may result in more fails than normal, due to students in the C- or D range receiving a “Fail” under this model.

Will students receiving a pass/fail during COVID-19 be tagged as such in the institution’s Student Information System (SIS)? Providing a separate designation for COVID-19 students will allow them to be easily disaggregated from non COVID-19 pass/fail students and will provide easier reporting on these students in the future.

How will these grades be transcripted? Two possible options include:

  • Transcript notation will appear with the semester on the face of the transcript. This method will work best for institutions making large scale, temporary changes to their grading policies.
  • COVID-19 Pass/Fail information will appear in the transcript legend. This is more appropriate for grading changes that are directed at specific departments, programs or populations of students during COVID-19.

Michigan Transfer Network (MTN) Upgrade – COVID-19

Additionally, higher education institutions participating in the Michigan Transfer Network now have the option to add information to their institutional profiles regarding COVID-19. This information will be similar to the links currently provided for Transfer, Athletics, and Advising webpages, but tailored to pandemic-instigated institutional transfer policy changes and other related updates. The pandemic-related links will appear under a specific COVID-19 heading and, as with all MTN institutional information, will be developed at the discretion of participating colleges and universities.

Will Emerson is Director of Student Success Initiatives at the Michigan Association of State Universities.