Despite student pleas, University System of Georgia won’t change grading to pass/fail

Some Mason students will be saying goodbye to letter grades. CONTRIBUTED

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Some Mason students will be saying goodbye to letter grades. CONTRIBUTED

Even amid pandemic, system says it’s critical to maintain high academic standards

Despite the adoption of pass/fail grades by many colleges across the country, the University System of Georgia plans to maintain regular letter grades.

A spokesman for the University System of Georgia -- which overees the state’s 26 public colleges  and universities -- said Monday:

The University System of Georgia is aware some institutions around the nation have decided to shift to pass/fail grading after transitioning to remote education. We are confident our students will rise to the challenge, and the USG will do everything in its power to help them do so. We trust our faculty to teach and grade students effectively. In times of adversity, we should reach higher, not lower.

Maintaining high academic standards is critical to the success of USG students now and in the future. Continuing letter grading for the final few weeks of the semester will allow faculty to assess the performance of students in the same manner as they always have.

The USG is confident that faculty and students will rely on the resilience they have shown thus far and continue to meet our high standards.

While online instruction will be new to many, thousands of USG students and faculty have already experienced it through nearly 11,000 online course sections offered prior to USG's temporary shift to all-online instruction. In addition, the USG has offered resources to assist faculty and students make the transition.

Among schools creating a pass/fail option are Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of South Florida, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, Morehouse, Emory, Vanderbilt and Duke.

"This is a moment that has been characterized by widespread anxiety, uncertainty, social, and geographic disruption. As academic leaders of this great university, we believe that bold action is necessary to maximize undergraduates' curricular engagement. Accordingly, during Spring 2020, we will transition all courses to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) grading option, but allow undergraduates the opportunity of receiving a letter grade," said Duke in a March 18 notice to students.

Based on faculty recommendation, Harvard embraced satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading. "We of course remain committed to academic continuity, but we cannot proceed as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed," said Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay in the Harvard Crimson.

At Agnes Scott College in Decatur, the faculty passed a policy allowing undergraduate and graduate students to take any or all of their spring courses pass/fail.

The Agnes Scott policy states:

Students that opt to change their classes to Pass/Fail will still earn credit toward their degree requirements. As with the current Pass/Fail policy, if a student receives a final grade of an A in the course and the student has elected to take Pass/Fail, the student will automatically get that A instead of a Pass as their final grade.

Students are still pressing for pass/fail through letters or petitions, including at the University of Georgia,  Georgia SouthernValdosta State, Georgia TechSpelman and the University of Georgia and Georgia State University law schools.

Third-year UGA law student Ross Harris said students are ranked in their law school classes based on test scores, and it’s those rankings that influence employment.

“In normal times, we are all on fairly equal footing. We have the same amount of time to study, the same opportunity to attend class,” said Harris, one of the organizers of the UGA and Georgia State Law Student Coalition for Pass/Fail. That is no longer true, he said, citing his own challenge to balance care of his 8-month-old baby with his studies while his wife works.

The coalition -- which has signatures from nearly half of the law students at the two schools -- wants the University System of Georgia to extend grading flexibility to law schools, he said.

Otherwise, Alanna Pierce, another UGA third-year law student, said, “These grades will be more a reflection of privilege rather than merit this semester. There are students who are now home-schooling kids, students out of work and worried about where the next paycheck will come from, and students who may get sick or will end up caring for sick loved ones. Privileged students have the time, money and space to step away from all that and study.”

The UGA petition for the state public campuses to go pass/fail had nearly 7,000 signatures Tuesday morning.  The petition states: "Given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe USG should strongly consider the option of transitioning to an opt-in pass/fail grading scale in which all classes would still count for major, minor, prerequisite, or concentration requirements."

In urging Georgia Tech to embrace pass/fail, a petition that garnered 1,600 signatures by Monday afternoon maintains many students lack the proper environment to concentrate on class work.

“Due to everyone else in my household being forced to go online, from my dad’s job to my siblings’ schoolwork, the internet in our household has been majorly overloaded. It is intensely stressful moving out, helping our siblings with their work, battling with the slow internet every day, and dealing with the stress of my family overall. I do want to continue my coursework; however, it is going to be more difficult to perform at the highest amount possible in this time. With switching to some alternative grading scale, it would be a huge relief,” wrote a Tech student.

A 2018 study of how technology problems impacted learning  surveyed college students and also engaged some in focus groups. The study found:

Roughly 20% of respondents had difficulty maintaining access to technology (e.g., broken hardware, data limits, connectivity problems, etc.). Students of lower socioeconomic status and students of color disproportionately experienced hardships, and reliance on poorly functioning laptops was associated with lower grade point averages.

“This is not a normal situation,” said Ambra Hunter, a 37-year-old junior at Georgia College & State University who has children at home now. “There is not a single facet of our lives that hasn’t been turned inside out. This applies to students and educators alike,” she said.  “We are in uncharted waters trying to make our way. Expecting students, or faculty, to be able to carry on a normal education during these extraordinary times is not plausible.”

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