Grading COVID-impacted ‘pass’ grades

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As the coronavirus upended students’ lives, colleges and universities abruptly transitioned to remote learning and often relaxed deadlines around pass/fail. Numerous community colleges introduced voluntary pass/no-pass grading options. 

But do the pass marks from these special grading systems transfer for credit to baccalaureate institutions?

Addressing the issue in mid-April, six higher education associations known as the Big Six, including the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), called upon colleges to modify their transfer policies so as to not harm incoming and future transfer students who opted into the COVID-prompted grading systems.

“The evaluation of grades and credit should recognize the extraordinary burden placed on students during this time,” the associations said in a statement

Indeed, numerous colleges and universities modified their transfer credit policies to award credit for all pass marks, no matter the fine print associated with them.

Transfer researchers and advocates commend the institutions that took steps to modify their transfer credit evaluation policies. Janet Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study for Transfer Students (NISTS) at the University of North Georgia, endorses policies empathetic to students whose college journeys may have been shaken by the virus and the shift to remote learning.

“It doesn’t work across the board for every credit to articulate into an academic program,” she acknowledges, “but there has to be a middle ground where we can stretch ourselves to look beyond existing policies to help transfer students maintain momentum towards their degrees.”

Looking ahead

Marling and other transfer experts predict that this fall more students will attend community colleges in order to stay close to home and to minimize costs while the four-year residential campus experience is on hold or greatly modified. Later on, these students may transfer to four-year colleges.

A concern of these experts is that each additional transfer movement is another opportunity for students to lose credits. 

George Spencer, a professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, calls for transfer processes to be as streamlined, transparent and clearly communicated as possible. Otherwise, transferring students, especially historically disadvantaged students, will be set back on the path to degree completion, he says.  

“So much is going on right now that is impacting student behavior,” Spencer says. “My hope is that institutions will do their best to make sure that they are supporting students.” 

‘D’ grades are not all the same

Some of the special grading systems that were adopted to ease student stress had three grade options, like P+, P- and WC (withdraw due to COVID) marks created by the Virginia Community College System.

Other systems were binary pass/fail or pass/no credit. Of the institutions that adopted these binary systems, some converted D grades to pass marks. This was the case at the City University of New York (CUNY), College of Southern Nevada (CSN), Massachusetts Bay Community College (MassBay) and Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Kansas, among others. In these systems, students could authorize conversions of letter grades, including D grades, to pass marks subsequent to the end of the term.

At MassBay, students had until May 27, which was after the end of the term, to request the conversion of A through D letter grades to “P” grades. According to a college spokesperson, 339 MassBay students, or 8.5 percent of the college’s enrollment, converted at least one regular letter grade to a P mark. 

At JCCC, the deadline for students to convert letter grades, including D grades, to P grades is not until December 1. As of mid-June, about 3.9 percent of the college’s 16,000 students had a P grade on their transcript. MargE Shelley, assistant dean of enrollment management, expects the number of students participating in the special grading program to increase between now and December as students continue to switch lower-level grades, including D grades, to P grades.

“This policy was one of those compassionate decisions that could help students,” says Shelley, whose first name ends with a capital letter. “It certainly was through no fault of the students themselves that they were switched from a face-to-face course to an online course.”

At other community colleges, D grades converted into failing or no credit marks. This was the case at Austin Community College in Texas and Rogue Community College (RCC) in Oregon. In these less-generous special grading plans, students’ incentive to opt into the systems was less strong than in those where D grades could be converted to passing grades subsequent to the end of the terms. 

At RCC, where the policy required students to select the pass/fail option three weeks prior to the end of the term, only 41 students opted in, representing less than 1 percent of the college’s enrollment, according to Navarro Chandler, dean of instruction, general education and transfer. Not many students wanted to commit to P grades at a time in the term when they could still push towards earning A or B grades, Chandler surmises.

The diverging definitions of “pass” — one that includes Ds and one that excludes Ds — introduced a layer of complexity to transfer credit evaluation, already a complicated process with variable policies across higher education. 

All ‘passes’ are transferable

The list of large public institutions that have committed to treat all post-covid pass grades, even ones that might be masking D grades, as if they were A-to-C letter grades includes the University of Rhode Island, Oregon State University, Oklahoma State University, Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) and Indiana University Bloomington (IU).

At IU, Sacha Thieme, assistant vice provost and executive director of admissions, explains IU’s policy change: “We needed to be more flexible, and this was an important opportunity to add additional flexibility.”

Under IU’s pre-COVID policy, only pass grades corresponding to marks of C or higher were accepted from incoming transfers. Under IU’s new policy, all pass grades from the spring 2020 term awarded under special grading measures will be accepted for credit, no questions asked.

Bart Grachan, an expert on transfer students whose dissertation was on transfer student pipelines, unequivocally endorses the policies that have been adopted to accept and award credit for all post-COVID pass marks.

“I don’t think that [we should be] penalizing students for circumstances this far outside of anyone’s control. In this pandemic, we are well outside the realm of what is normal, desired or ideal,” he says. 

Nuanced policies

Yet not all colleges have committed to accepting all post-COVID pass grades.

At California State University (CSU), pass grades from schools that defined pass as A-D, rather than just A to C, are not being accepted for transfer credit.

“CSU will use the transcript key, printed on the back of the official transcript, to determine if the coursework with a grade of Pass or Credit is equivalent to a grade of C- or higher,” says Toni Molle, a spokesperson for the CSU Office of the Chancellor.

This works fine for students transferring from the 115 colleges of the California Community Colleges system where P is equivalent to grades of C or better, but it might not work for students transferring from other institutions, like CUNY and CSN.

A number of other universities modified policies but with limits on the applicability of the credits. The University of Houston (UH) is not guaranteeing that students will receive credit for in-major courses being transferred in with P grades from the spring 2020 term. As indicated by UH spokesperson Shawn Lindsey, pass marks “may not count for certain prerequisites and major requirements depending on the student’s academic program.” General education or elective credit may be awarded instead of in-major credit.

Other institutions haven’t yet clarified their policies regarding acceptance of special COVID-term pass grades.

Shelley at JCCC in Kansas says, “My hope is that colleges will accept the credits and use them in whatever manner is needed.” However, because she is aware that not all institutions may have such flexible policies, she and her colleagues built a safeguard into the JCCC program. Upon student request, JCCC will issue letters with the original grades, Shelley says.

Fixing transfer for the long-term

The policies at CSU and UH to limit the awarding of credit for coursework carrying pass marks may be the tip of the iceberg of credit loss problems encountered by transfer students.  

A 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office found that students transferring between public institutions had 37 percent of their credits rendered useless by their receiving institutions, often as excess elective credits.

Marling of NISTS hopes that the present attention on transfer galvanizes much-needed change. She is optimistic that institutions will use this moment to assess all their policies around the evaluation of incoming transfer credits.

“Transfer is an unequivocal mechanism for closing the racial and income gap, but only if it works well,” she says.

About the Author

Eric Neutuch
is a freelance education writer.