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Changes to Pass/Fail Under Consideration

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The Curriculum Committee is considering changes to pass/fail policies in an attempt to reform the credit/no credit system. On Feb. 17th, Provost Tom Stephenson sent out descriptions of the proposals and a survey on students’ policy preferences to the student body via email. The changes to the policy include making a D- a passing grade for first-year students, making the threshold for passing a course taken as CR/NC consistent among all class years, and making a C- or better appear as credit.  A D+, D or D- in a class taken as CR/NC would have the letter grade appear on the transcript but still earn credit. Another proposal is to change the deadline for electing to take a course CR/NC no later than the 13th week of the semester rather than the 9th, and reduce the number of classes a student can opt for CR/NC after the first semester from four to three. These changes would only apply to the class of 2021 and beyond.

Students generally supported the proposals with the exception of the measure decreasing the number of CR/NC selections. Of the 420 students who responded to the survey, 53.5 percent of students supported allowing first year students to earn credit for a D-, with 19.6 percent opposing and 27 percent selecting the neutral option. For the potential change in the appearance of CR/NC grades below a C-, 63.8 percent were in favor, 22.7 percent opposed, and 14.6 percent were neutral. 88.5 percent of students agreed with changing the deadline to elect CR/NC to the 13th week, 6.9 percent opposed, and 4.5 percent of students answered “neutral.” Only 24.6 percent of students who took the survey indicated that they supported the reduction of CR/NC selections to three, 50.8 percent indicated that they opposed, and 24.6 percent were neutral to the idea.

SGO’s discussion of the proposal during its Feb. 26 meeting focused on the impact of the potential implementation of the changes for current students, but the provost stressed that it would not be feasible to apply changes in CR/NC policies to current students. Additionally, SGO was interested in helping advocate for the proposals students supported, but they were informed that the decision is in the hands of the Curriculum Committee.

The wide support for changing the deadline to elect to take a class CR/NC is indicative of the current issues with the pass/fail system. Students often feel that they do not have enough information by the ninth week of classes to make right decision. Because students inevitably gain more insight into how they are doing in a class as the semester progresses, extending the deadline would help students make more informed decisions.

Such a situation happened to Ana Curtis ’19, who experienced this situation when she took a class CR/NC but ended up doing better in the course than she expected.

“I was taking a class that I didn’t think I would do well in and got a C on the first test. It was pretty close to the pass/fail deadline, so I decided to take the class pass/fail. However, I ended up doing very well on the second midterm and presumably did well on the final, and so when I checked my grade over break, it turned out my shadow grade was an A. If I had the option to wait to declare pass/fail, I would have had that A on my GPA instead of ‘Credit’,” Curtis said.

However, there are concerns that students will use the extended deadline to hide grades. Students could presumably use the deadline to hide their worst grade in a particular semester, while the intent of pass fail is for students to take classes that they would not normally take. Stephenson expressed that there were faculty concerns with that aspect of the proposal.

To the degree that the proposal will result in conversion of grades that fall below the current college average to CR, then that will result in the inflation of the average graduation GPA […] There are faculty who worry as a matter of principle about the ability of students to pick-and-choose which grades appear on their transcripts. Some of that is a matter of principle, some is concern about ‘GPA protection.’ It is hard for me to predict how widely shared these views might be and how they are balanced against the other positive benefits of the proposals,” he said.

Economics Professor John Caskey also expressed his thoughts on the proposal and provided his perspective on the CR/NC deadline proposal.

“I don’t strongly favor or oppose the proposal. Clearly students would take more classes for a grade and use the credit/no credit option after getting their final grades to ‘hide’ grades that they think hurt their overall academic record. On net, I suspect the proposal would slightly contribute to grade inflation since many unexpected low grades could be removed from transcripts. But, offsetting this, some faculty members might be more inclined to give low grades, just assuming that students could convert them into [credits],” he said.

The potential changes would only apply to the class of 2021 and not any current students. Student opinion ultimately does not bind the faculty to make a particular decision, but student opinion is considered. Additionally, the individual proposals can be enacted independently of one another. Stephenson commented on how the decision will be made.

“Curricular decisions are, in the final analysis, made by the faculty. But I think that student input is welcome and sought whenever we are are making decisions that are motivated in whole or in part by what is perceived to be in the best interests of students. I think that student input can also sway undecided faculty […And] I believe that [the proposals] can be adopted independently of one another,” he said.
Credit/No Credit policies seem likely to change in the future as the results of the survey indicated clear results and the Curriculum Committee seems interested in improving the current CR/NC policies. It is yet to be seen whether the policy changes will effectively address the current challenges of the pass/fail policy and improve the academic experience for future Swatties.

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