The Racial Reckoning And The Not So Great Reset Come For Letter Grades In College
Print Friendly and PDF

From KQED:

University of California Departments Consider Ditching Letter-Grade System for New Students

Michael Burke
Apr 26

Inside some University of California academic departments and colleges, an atypical idea is gaining steam: deemphasizing, or even ditching, the A-F grading system and rethinking how to assess student learning.

Divisions like UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry and UC Davis’s Department of Mathematics are deliberating whether to change how they grade students.

The opening of the article is overstating many of the changes currently being considered, but that’s indicative of which way the wind is blowing. When you abolish the use of admissions tests, as the University of California just did in order to let in more of The Diverse, you are immediately going to run into the problem that even more of The Diverse will flunk out.

So, what do you do?

Make it easier for them not to flunk out.

In some cases, that means awarding students a pass or no-pass grade rather than a letter grade.

Rice U. in 1980, not a particularly easy place or time, allowed some classes to be taken pass-fail. I took art history pass-fail my last semester.

UC Santa Cruz was all pass-fail in the latter 20th century, which is one reason it never quite cashed in on its superb location in a warm water beach town with redwoods not far from Silicon Valley. Put Cal Poly San Luis Obispo an hour’s drive from Palo Alto and you’d have something, but fostering a hippie college in Santa Cruz was a waste.

Other times, it may mean allowing students to choose which assignments get the most weight in determining their grade.

Sounds like an IQ test.

At UC Irvine, Academic Senate leaders are currently evaluating long-term options around grading and have met with officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where students don’t receive letter grades for their first semester, to learn about that university’s approach.

MIT, though, just announced it is resuming use of standardized entrance tests (SAT and ACT) because they are crucial to letting in the students who can do the rigorous work MIT demands.

MIT’s intention of trying to not flunk out high potential freshman who have trouble their first semester making the transition from high school, where they were often far smarter than their classmates, to a school where they might be average or below average makes sense. But once you get rid of SAT/ACT and thus let in, on average, lower potential students, you are often just delaying the inevitable.

Departments at other UC campuses also are experimenting with making changes to how they test students, putting less emphasis on high-stakes exams, because some students aren’t good test-takers but can demonstrate their understanding of the material in other ways.

E.g., by belonging to a groupwork group that includes at least one smart and hardworking student to do the work for them.

Some departments have begun using two-stage exams: Students take a standard individual exam before also taking a group test where they work with other students.

Like I said.

The changes are especially being considered for first-year students to give them more time to get used to the rigors of college work and learn the material over the course of a semester rather than discourage them early on with low scores on tests and other assignments.

It’s not an unreasonable concern. A lot of kids have first semester problems: colleges are tougher than most high schools. Also, homesickness is a problem, not having your mom and dad around to yell at you can hurt your diligence, freshmen notoriously put on 15 pounds eating cafeteria food, and girls often decide they want to lose their virginity when they get to college, which so often winds up being a depressing experience for them.

All the possibilities are a welcome development to Jody Greene, the associate vice provost of teaching and learning at UC Santa Cruz, who argues that letter grades aren’t necessarily indicative of whether a student has mastered the material.

The Diversity-Inclusion-Equity mindset encourages authority figures to reason that if something isn’t perfect, then it shouldn’t be done at all, which is stupid.

Often, Greene said, what grades really measure is the student’s preparation to do college work. That could stem from the availability of rigorous courses in that student’s high school, such as Advanced Placement classes.

The 2019 study by scholars belonging to the U. of California faculty senate found the single biggest factor in determining both freshman and four year academic performance was entrance exam scores. But the UC Board of Regents then spit in the eye of the faculty and banned exams anyway.

recent UC Board of Regents memo noted that a student from an under-resourced high school “may perform poorly on initial assignments.” As they learn the material over the course of the term, the student may ultimately ace the final exam yet still end up with a below average grade because of those early assignments.

Greene is among some teaching staff across UC who have long advocated for changes to grading, but the pandemic has accelerated the willingness of many faculty members to get on board with those ideas, she said. According to the regents memo, faculty sensitivity to inequities in their students’ educational experiences “was heightened” during the pandemic, ramping up efforts across UC to improve grading and assessment, though officials acknowledge there’s no consensus across the system of the best approach.

In other words, the professors think this push against grades by the bureaucrats is a bad idea.

“We will be better institutions for this,” said Greene, who is also the founding director of UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning. “The changes that were happening in higher education at a glacial pace were put on a bullet train by COVID, and as painful as the last couple of years have been, we’re now having genuine conversations about how we can better serve the students.”

When a woman bureaucrat uses the word “conversation,” she doesn’t want a conversation, she wants you to shut up and stop confusing her with your logic and data.

The shift to reconsider how best to teach and assess students was a natural one for many faculty members amid the pandemic, said Rachel Kennison, executive director of UCLA’s Center for Education Innovation and Learning in the Sciences. Once classes moved online, faculty had to think of new ways to engage students and couldn’t rely on traditional methods for assessing them, such as in-person, closed-book exams.

That was key because often, students who struggle in their first year of college to achieve high grades are discouraged and leave their majors. The problem is especially acute in STEM fields, and particularly among Black and Latino students when they take so-called weed-out classes, difficult courses like chemistry or calculus that often determine whether a student sticks with their major.

One college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has found a system that may serve as a model for UC campuses. That university uses what Ian Waitz, MIT’s vice chancellor of undergraduate and graduate education, calls “ramp-up grading” for first-year students.

For every class MIT students take their first semester, either they receive a passing grade or the course doesn’t show up on their transcript at all. In the second semester, they either get a letter grade of A, B or C or, if they earn a D or F, the class doesn’t appear on their transcript. By year two, students receive a standard A-F grade for most classes. That system for first-year grading has been in place at MIT since 2000.

“We’re gradually getting people acclimated, and they’re calibrating themselves to what it takes to succeed with our very rigorous academics,” Waitz said. That style of grading is valuable to students, who also are going through a massive life change as they start college. It’s a difficult transition for many students who are living away from home for the first time and need time to adjust. …

MIT is a serious school. In Raj Chetty’s data, MIT bachelor’s grads (i.e., didn’t go on to grad or professional school) have the country’s highest average incomes for holders of four-year degrees at around age 30. So I would look into what MIT does. But also, keep in mind that you aren’t MIT.

For one thing, MIT is serious about its admissions process, publicly endorsing entrance exams recently in the biggest single setback for the dumbing down of college admissions. 

Waitz recently met with leaders of UC Irvine’s Academic Senate to discuss MIT’s strategies as Irvine weighs its options on first-year grading. A spokesperson for Irvine said in an email that the senate “is still deliberating policies and there is nothing to share at this time.”

Relying more on pass/no pass grading could be a natural transition for UC campuses after almost all of them relaxed their pass/no pass regulations during the pandemic.

What I call the Not So Great Reset: You make some improvisations because there’s a pandemic and then those obviously suboptimal emergency measures become a precedent for doing worse stuff all the time.

Of course, some Asian UC students are using the slacking off on grades to study differential equations 17 hours per day:

Among the UC students who have benefited from pass/no pass classes is Timothy Tam Nguyen, a second-year math major at UC Irvine. Nguyen took a political science class and designated it as pass/no pass because he wasn’t confident he would get an A and wanted to focus more on classes in his major. …

Seeing how the increased availability of pass/no pass classes helped relieve student stress is among the main factors that motivated UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry to consider permanent changes to pass/no pass grading for first-year students. College leaders also believe it’s an equity issue and have noticed that students who enter college less prepared than their peers often finish their first year with lower GPAs as a result, according to the regents memo.

Majoring in chemistry at Berkeley ought to be stressful.

A question I’ve never seen studied is how long should a STEM major’s weed- out class be delayed? There’s something to be said for not holding it the first semester of freshman year, but it’s also important not to delay it so long that the poor dumb kid doesn’t have time to switch to a poly sci major or whatever.

Some critics argue that designating too many classes as pass/no pass could have negative implications for students hoping to attend graduate school, though Greene disputes that notion. She pointed out that, until 2001, UC Santa Cruz did not assign grades at all and still sent many students to graduate school.

It’s almost as if most of these ideas were tried in the sixties … and failed. But who can remember that?

… At UC Davis, meanwhile, the Department of Mathematics has considered using “contract grading,” which allows a student to choose how to be graded. One calculus instructor at that college gives students three options, each with a different distribution of weight across different assessments to determine the student’s grade. For example, one option could give more weight to exams, and another option could give more weight to homework and class engagement.

Coming next year: the shocking revelation that having students choose among complicated ways to earn their grade has disparate impact on affirmative action admittees who, it turns, are less adept at thinking through the choices.

Elsewhere at Davis, an introductory biology class uses two-stage exams. After taking a traditional test, students work together in groups to solve questions that are the same or similar to the exam questions. “Students who preferred that approach said it provided an opportunity to debate and arrive at a better answer. Students also received immediate feedback on individual exam responses from peers,” states the regents memo.

Also, dumb, lazy kids can ride the coattails of smart, hardworking kids.

[Comment at]

Print Friendly and PDF