As universities scramble to respond to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, many are seeking ways to make up for the lost time in class and inconvenience of online learning.
Texas A&M University has allowed its students to decide to switch from a conventional A-F grading system to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory system for any of their courses, and the University of Texas at Austin has allowed students to switch courses of their choice this semester to a pass/fail grading system.
As of March 27, Texas State’s Student Government is advocating for something far more radical: a “4.0/fail” grading system, where students are given an A on their transcripts for any course in which they are earning a letter grade of D or better.
Texas State administrators should not consider this suggestion.
Instead, Texas State should follow other Texas universities’ examples and make up for this uncertainty by extending the drop deadline for all Spring 2020 courses and allowing students to decide, on a course-by-course basis, whether to change their grade system to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory system, which will not appear on their transcripts. A “satisfactory” grade would correspond to a grade of C or better, which is already the standard for prerequisite courses.
In suggesting this 4.0/fail alternative, the Student Government shows a grave misunderstanding of the emergency pass/fail and similar systems being adopted by other universities. These courses in which students select a pass/fail grading system will not show up on their transcripts.
Student Government’s plan would not only leave a grade on transcripts but a falsely inflated grade at that—one which students simply cannot afford to accept for most of their coursework.
Passing grades in prerequisite courses allow students to move on to another, more challenging course. At Texas State, this means a student must earn a C or better to demonstrate an understanding of base material before moving on. An A grade for an earned D in a prerequisite course is setting students up for failure in their next course, leaving them to waste valuable time and tuition money in the summer or fall.
Student Government President Corey Benbow says that the 4.0/fail policy would be better than the ‘negative effect’ a simple “pass” score would have on a student’s transcript. On the contrary, an unearned A in a course critical to students’ understanding of degree material could have terrible, and perhaps dangerous, effects on students’ transcripts.
If a pre-medical student is awarded an A for an Anatomy or Physiology course, they were actually making a D in, for example, they are given a false boost on medical school applications—which, of course, is lost when they get to medical school and realize they cannot name half the bones in the human body.
In addition, automatic A grades could devalue entire degrees from Texas State University. For an entire semester, students could be awarded A grades for doing the bare minimum and not showing sufficient understanding of the course material, and, upon entering graduate school or the workforce, be leagues behind other students from other universities, whose transcripts give a better reflection of their academic performance.
In adopting this proposed grading scale, people evaluating a graduate school or job candidates’ transcripts will not be able to comfortably trust what they read—or believe these students are knowledgeable in any of the course content they covered in the spring 2020 semester.
Naturally, moving to online-only instruction will create barriers for many Texas State students, who may now find themselves with less stable housing, less nurturing learning environments and less reliable access to coursework.
Nevertheless, this is not an excuse to hold students back by devaluing their degrees, placing them in courses they may not understand next semester or placing faculty in the awkward situation of giving an unearned A to a student who has not put forth the work to earn that grade.
Despite what Benbow may say, there is no shame in taking a “pass” mark on a course—a passing grade is something to be proud of, especially in these unpredictable and stressful times.
-Toni Mac Crossan is a biology graduate student