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Some Virginia universities stick to alternative grading system following pandemic

UVA Wise's campus
University of Virginia at Wise in Southwest Virginia is one of several state universities that have kept in place certain elements of alternative grading policies they adopted during the pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy UVA Wise)

Many colleges across the country — including in Virginia — opted for an alternative grading system early on in the pandemic, and some are keeping components of that system around this year.

Virginia Commonwealth University added a pass/fail grading option in spring 2020 to be sensitive to the stresses on lower-income students from underrepresented communities, whose families were more severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Students could elect — before the final grades were provided — if they wanted to receive a pass/fail grade versus a letter grade,” said Tomikia LeGrande, VCU’s vice president for strategy, enrollment management and student success.

The university decided to continue offering a permanent, modified pass/fail option for some classes starting in  fall 2020. That policy has  since been tweaked to allow students to opt for the alternative grading for a maximum of 15 credit hours over the course of their degree program, not counting those classes that are only offered pass/fail.

“Our students greatly appreciated it,” LeGrande said. “As a matter of fact, they encouraged us to keep the policy after we were moving out of the height of the pandemic.”

Some colleges, like the Virginia Military Institute, made no changes to their grading policy throughout the pandemic, while others like Old Dominion University only implemented a pass/fail option during that first semester of the pandemic — spring 2020.

William & Mary’s decisions were similar to VCU’s. In spring 2020, it allowed students the pass/fail option for all undergraduate courses.  That fall, they could select the pass/fail option for just two of their standard-graded courses.

While the university reverted back to its prepandemic grading policy in spring 2021, a task force — including students, faculty and administrative representatives — recommended allowing juniors and seniors the option to select up to four elective courses in Arts & Sciences or Education as pass/fail. That recommendation was adopted and took effect in spring 2022.

“The policy reflects William & Mary’s concern for student well-being and provides students agency while still providing graduate programs and employers the opportunity to see a well-rounded assessment of a student’s academic accomplishments,” wrote Director of Communications Suzanne Clavet in an email.

University of Virginia at Wise in the southwest portion of the commonwealth opted for a credit/no credit option for all classes during the spring 2020 semester. Registrar Narda Porter said the option was designed to not penalize students who were struggling and also help out students transferring into the university. Porter said about a quarter of new students at UVa Wise are transfer students.

“Prepandemic, if a student took a course at a community college or wherever and just got a credit, we typically wouldn’t accept that because we need a graded course. But we chose to suspend that as well,” Porter said.

George Mason University opted for a slightly different alternative grading policy for spring 2020. While the default option was still A-F grading, students could elect to have XS (Extraordinary Circumstances-Satisfactory), XP (Extraordinary Circumstances-Pass), XN (Extraordinary Circumstances-No Credit) or XW (Extraordinary Circumstances-Withdrawal) grades applied instead.

“If they wanted to switch to the extraordinary circumstances grading, basically the grades wouldn’t count for or against them,” said Melissa Broeckelman-Post, basic course director for the university.

The XS and XP options, Broeckelman-Post said, “wouldn’t impact your GPA. You would get credit for the course, but you would not get points positively or negatively” when it came to meeting certain requirements to keep financial aid.

Broeckelman-Post said the university made other policy changes during the pandemic to be more sensitive to students’ situations. The university only allows a maximum of three class withdrawals on a student’s transcript for their entire degree. But during the pandemic, Broeckelman-Post said Mason allowed students to drop classes without them counting toward those three.

“If someone had already dropped two classes and already had two [withdrawals] … we didn't want that to prevent them from dropping [other classes] if they were in the middle of really difficult circumstances and it was not a good choice for them to continue their schoolwork that semester,” Broeckelman-Post said.

Another change they made: not having incompletes automatically convert to a failing grade. She used the example of a military student who was deployed with a medical unit who ended up with an incomplete grade in a class.

“The incomplete was not the first thing on his mind when he came back from wherever he had been serving, and he didn't finish his incomplete in time and it turned into an F,” Broeckelman-Post said. “And we kind of said, ‘Wait, that's not appropriate.’ The letter grade is about academic performance; we shouldn't be giving someone an F because they were unable to finish the class.”

She said the same applies for students who never came to class.

“There is something else going on in their life … this is not about their academic performance, it's about something else,” Broeckelman-Post said. “We just need to make that 'no credit,' instead of counting it as an F.”

While Mason went back to its normal A-F grading policy in summer 2021, Broeckelman-Post said a task force will be convening soon to evaluate any long-term changes.

“Grades are a reflection of and also a motivator for many students to really learn as well as possible, to be as well prepared as possible for their lives. And so, it would be a really big step to remove that grading system without us doing a really thorough study,” Broeckelman-Post said.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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