Harris and other Howard students are asking the school to expand pass-fail grading for fall courses, an option they say will alleviate stress as they near the end of another semester of remote learning.
“We are very much in the same pandemic that we were in in March,” Harris said. “We cannot be expected to do the same level of work, the same quality of work, that we would be expected to do on campus. It’s impossible.”
A petition on the topic has garnered more than 2,550 signatures, but university leaders won’t budge, saying the process of changing the grading system midsemester would take too long and undermine the integrity of certain courses.
Howard implemented a universitywide pass-fail option last semester but allowed interested students to opt in to traditional letter grades. The switch required staff to manually modify more than 20,000 grades — a process that took more than four months to complete, Howard Provost Anthony Wutoh said Tuesday in a statement.
Wutoh said he’s aware of concerns students have raised about mental health and other challenges heightened by the pandemic. “We will continue to work together with our students, faculty and staff to provide the high quality education that is representative of Howard University.”
Howard and other schools offered pass-fail grading during the spring, when the coronavirus upended in-person classes and scattered students to their homes throughout the country. The option eliminates traditional letter grades, instead giving students either passing or failing grades once the semester ends.
Nearby American, George Washington and Georgetown universities have continued to offer variations of pass-fail grading through the fall semester.
While pass-fail grading can be easier on students, some educators worry the system does not accurately reflect how well a student performed in a class. At American, which is allowing students to opt into the pass-fail system for two courses, a student can earn a passing grade whether they earn an A or a C letter grade.
Those concerns were highlighted at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, where more than 7,770 people have signed a petition asking administrators to implement a pass-fail grading option for all classes. Students could register for one pass-fail course — an elective — this semester, according to university policy.
Mary Ann Rankin, the school’s senior vice president and provost, told students the grading system could put them at risk, particularly if they receive a passing grade without fully understanding the course material.
“It is in the best long-term interest of our students to not make that change again. With a pass-fail system, such as the one we adopted last spring, transcripts do not accurately reflect students’ mastery of coursework,” Rankin said in a message to students. “Use of pass-fail grading can diminish options for graduate school or postgraduate employment for some students and affect accreditation or micro-credentialing for others.”
Instead, College Park officials extended the deadline to withdraw from a course to Nov. 30. “This extension of the withdrawal deadline gives students an additional option for a class in which they are facing substantial difficulties, but avoids much of the corollary risk of pass-fail grading,” Rankin wrote.
But students still aren’t satisfied, and the Student Government Association recently approved a resolution urging school officials to reconsider their decision, the Diamondback student newspaper reported.
“If life is not back to normal,” students wrote in a petition, “grading shouldn’t be either.”