Changes to grading policies


For Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), allowing students to take courses in the current term on a pass/non-pass basis instead of traditional grades was almost essential.

“We need to be real honest that this is a changed environment,” Kress said. She noted that community college students worry not only about academics, but they are stressed about many other things, including transitioning to remote learning (even being able to connect online is a challenge for many), losing jobs, paying bills, buying food and more.

Such pressure may prompt them to drop out, Kress said. Offering a pass/non-pass option for the term could help them stay in college and on course, she said, noting that pass/non-pass indicates students are achieving their learning objectives.

On Friday, after consulting with Virginia’s community college presidents, faculty and students, the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) announced that its 23 colleges would use pass/non-pass instead of letter grades for the current term. In a message on the system’s website, Chancellor Glenn DuBois said the temporary policy was an issue of equity and fairness for students during a time when many things are out of their control.

“My hope in taking this step is that students will not be disadvantaged on their transcripts by a global pandemic that is beyond their control,” DuBois wrote. “Some will face additional challenges in having their courses moved from the classroom to the keyboard. Others will encounter the COVID-19 virus itself, afflicting them, a family member they care for, or even their instructor.”

The policy applies only to spring 2020 courses that have not finished by April 6. It doesn’t apply to spring classes that have already concluded.

Despite the new policy, students can still earn a letter grade upon request. The system is also allowing students to drop out of a course with no penalty up to the last class.

“Circumstances can change very quickly in this situation,” and the system and its colleges want to provide students with as much flexibility as possible, said VCCS spokesperson Jeffrey Kraus.

OK to transfer

All public four-year universities in Virginia will accept the pass/non-pass courses, Kraus said. VCCS worked with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which is the commonwealth’s coordinating body for higher education, to ensure the policy will not affect students’ ability to transfer to a public state university.

To help four-year institutions better align courses into certain programs, some passing grades will have a P+ for grades C+ or better, and P- for lower passing grades, Kraus said.

Colleges will vary in how they develop procedures to implement the changes. But several, including NOVA, quickly shared the information and addressed some key points. For example, students must request a letter grade for each class separately, if they want it, and the decision is not reversible.

Changes in California

The nation’s largest state community college system on Friday also made changes to its graduating rules.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has adjusted some grading regulations throughout the 115-college system in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the latest among several measures to help students adjust to disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“Our colleges are committed to helping our 2.1 million students get through this crisis, and these measures are designed to ensure students are not punished for events that are out of their control,” Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a press release, noting that college districts throughout the state are converting in-person courses to online instruction.

The new changes will:

  • Allow students to retake any course attempted during the pandemic. Colleges will disregard the previous grade when computing a GPA when the course is completed.
  • Waive the deadline for selecting a pass/no-pass option instead of a letter grade. However, the chancellor’s office emphasized that the University of California and California State University systems require courses for a major to have a letter grade.
  • No-pass grades will not be considered in probation and dismissal procedures. Students intending to complete a course under the current situation, rather than withdraw, will not be negatively affected if they cannot successfully complete the course.

In addition, local governing boards are authorized to extend their spring terms through June 30, as needed.

Expanding options

Four-year colleges and universities also have started to offer a variety of pass/non-pass or credit/no-credit options, which may prompt more community colleges to do so, as addressing the transfer issue may be easier. For example, all University of Maryland undergraduate courses this spring will be graded pass/non-pass unless the student requests a grade for the course.

In Pennsylvania, Temple University plans to offer students a pass/non-pass option, though it has informed students that shifting from letter grades could affect their GPAs and more. It will roll out more details on March 30. Temple and other public universities in the state are also in discussions with community colleges regarding transfer students, according to officials.

Some public two-year colleges in Pennsylvania are moving forward with changes to their policy, too. Luzerne County Community College (LCCC) will allow students up to seven days after the term ends to switch to a pass/non-pass grade, said President Thomas Leary. The college also is making more flexible its policy regarding incomplete courses. Students can retain an incomplete grade for a class for up to one year, and they don’t have to register again or pay for it, he said. LCCC also extended its withdrawal date, though Leary is encouraging students to use the college’s remote support services to help them to continue with their studies.

Leary said he plans to soon talk with four-year institutions regarding transferring credits for pass/non-pass courses. The temporary policy shouldn’t impede transfers of credits, he contended, noting those courses should transfer with successful completion, which a pass grade indicates.

Dropping the placement test

Colleges also are making changes to entrance exams. The Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) on Friday announced that it is suspending the placement exam requirement for admission to any of its 22 technical colleges. It’s also suspending the requirement that applicants provide an official high school or high school equivalency transcript for admission to TCSG colleges.

“As we navigate these uncertain and unprecedented times, we want to do everything we can to help our fellow Georgians pursue higher education without barriers,” said TCSG Commissioner Greg Dozier. “By suspending the placement exam and official high school or high school equivalency transcript requirements, we are removing obstacles for people who otherwise would enroll at one of our colleges.” 

Although it’s suspending the use of the placement exam, colleges can still use other placement methods they already use, the system said. Also in the interim, students may submit unofficial transcripts until the colleges resume normal business operations. Students can then submit official documents to the college without affecting their current enrollment.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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