Fall 2020 was an unusual time to return to the college classroom after several years away, largely because I did not return to a classroom at all. Like many American professors, I taught my 2020 courses barricaded in the sole corner of my living room unravaged by a school-free child. I recorded lectures using a program dystopically but accurately called Panopto; I held discussions wherein all of my pedagogical energy disappeared immediately into an abyss of little black squares.
Yes, most aspects of Zoom University were god-awful—but not the grading part! That part was revelatory. Acknowledging the challenges the pandemic wrought upon one’s physical and mental health, many universities, including the one where I teach, allowed students to convert their grades to pass/no-pass until the last week of class. That meant two things: First, a kid could have a less-than-great term, but still get credit for a course without dinging their GPA—because the “pass” grants credit hours, but has no corresponding number and doesn’t figure into the GPA at all. Second, if the student fully imploded, a course could disappear from their transcript altogether, a specter of this odious era evaporating along with so much Grubhub delivery exhaust.
The result, at least in my courses, was that students worried much less about hustling and haggling for every single point available to them, and concentrated instead on just getting through the term, enjoying what they could about the course material. When a physical or mental health emergency inevitably led to missing work, I happily put through a C or B-minus for their final grade, knowing that it would come out the other end a pass, and the student would move on with their life.
Alas. Unlike the pandemic, this marked improvement in “learning outcomes assessment” (barf) didn’t last. When my classes this year went back to quasi-normal, the flexible pass-fail option disappeared, right along with the phrase “I’m going to share my screen.” The only problem? Everything still sucks! College students might (or might not!) be better off than they were this time last year—but they are far from OK, and their grades have shown it.
So now this is happening: It’s finals week, and despite taking advantage of every mitigation strategy I’ve been able to provide—unlimited late work, make-up exams, a truly obscene amount of extra credit—a certain number of students experienced crises after the withdrawal deadline, and now I have no choice but to give out a rash of D’s and F’s. And as much as I wish certain students had, say, come to class more and done more homework, watching them suffer the consequences of their actions gives me no Freude and all Schaden.
Contrary to what the boomer grandpas and Kids Rock of the world may argue, this is not, actually, because students today are coddled babies who wouldn’t know hard work if it bit them in the tuchus. (People who say this, without fail, do not know how it feels to come of age trapped inside an early draft of the Outbreak script, except with more guns.) The “bad” GPA is not due to students themselves being “bad.” Rather, it is due to the punitive A–F grade point scale itself—which is compliance-rewarding, often unfair, usually inconsistent, dehumanizing, over-rubricked, soulless, noxious garbage. And garbage belongs in the garbage.
As both a student and an educator, I have always known this in my bones. But peer-reviewed education research now backs me up—and the youth mental health crisis of the pandemic is the perfect time to actually do something about it. It’s past time to junk the 4-point GPA forever and replace it with something fair, tenable, and eminently reasonable—and it just so happens I have such a scheme in mind.
In my long-standing disdain for the GPA I am in august company—namely, anthropologist and anti-grading crusader Susan D. Blum and the all-star cast of authors (including Jesse Stommel, whose work has influenced me tremendously) of the 2020 essay collection Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). Blum et al. remind us that grading at the postsecondary level is a relatively new (i.e., 19th and 20th century) phenomenon. In his foreword, anti-grading legend Alfie Kohn enumerates the three predictable (and deleterious) effects that grading has: “less interest in learning, a preference for easier tasks, and shallower thinking.” Blum later elaborates, arguing that grading “flattens nuances in students’ practices and understanding,” relies heavily on a “factory model” of producing obedient and docile workers, and inevitably leads to “cheating, corner cutting, [and] gaming the system.” As someone who has run headfirst into every one of these impediments in my own teaching practice, as I read I found myself nodding along so fervently that my neck got sore.
The Ungraders also remind us that some form of the pass-fail system is already standard practice at the majority of American medical schools, proof positive that grades aren’t necessary to assess competence in a literal life-or-death situation. (The same is true of almost every high-stakes credentialing exam, including, of course, the bar, all of which are pass-fail.) And the authors’ own prescriptions, inspiringly, largely involve purging the academic body in toto of what Kohn calls the “arsenic of extrinsic motivation,” banishing the 4-point scale until all that remains is a true (and necessarily complex) personalized, discursive assessment of intrinsically motivated learning that is, alas, far less simple—by necessity—than a letter or a number. As University of Southern California writing instructor Ryan Boyd explains in his excellent recent review of Ungrading for the Los Angeles Review of Books, while the contributors present a “clear unifying vision of gradeless schools,” the book “does not offer iron dictates, universalized prescriptions, or procrustean theory,” instead offering a customizable “spectrum of ways to think and teach without letter grades or number scores or hierarchies.”
As you can see, I agree with the Ungraders in principle. I, too, wish to live in a world where students actually know what learning is, and wish to do it for something other than points and prizes and the vague promise of avoidance of existential annihilation. I also wish to live in a world where vocational school assumes its rightful place of honor, where nobody feels they have to go to college—and then rack up debt that accrues whether their GPA forces them to drop out or not. I also wish my sweatpants appeared to everyone else as a perfectly fitted business suit. And all of these things are possible, someday. But what I want is something I can implement now. Yesterday. To reduce the harm the grade point scale is causing my students right this second. (Literally: I just filed my final grades an actual second ago.)
So here’s my exquisite instant-gratification compromise (also a good title for a sex tape!). It hurts nobody, helps everyone, and is almost seamless to implement: The only existing grades are A and A-minus; the cookie-wanting, trophy-hoarding Tracy Flicks of the world can earn them to their little hearts’ content. Anything that would normally incur something within the B-plus-to-C-minus range? Which demonstrates competency and grasp of the material (after, yes, reasonable options to retake and rewrite and relearn)? That is a pass—and pass is the default option, unless the aforementioned Flicks specifically petition to be graded. Lack of a pass? Simply not recorded.
This way, everyone wins. The extrinsically motivated still have their shiny 4 points. The students who either don’t want to be there or experience hardship can pass with pride (or not-pass without a permanent anvil around their necks!) and move on with their lives. The university still keeps its tuition regardless of outcome. And failure still begets consequences: no credit; dollars gonezo; eff around and indeed find out! But unlike now, when a tainted transcript follows someone to every possible future institution, failure doesn’t preclude the opportunity for a fresh start, which real life offers on a regular basis. (For administrative purposes—universities’ heavy dependence on enrollment for financial aid money, for example—an “auditor’s credit” can also take the place of a fail. Unlike the pass, it doesn’t count toward the degree—but it shows the check-writers the seat was filled.)
I know what you’re thinking. Will this amazing system, which everyone should adopt immediately, inflate grades further, with the A the default? I don’t know—that seems to work for everyone at Harvard. Seriously, though, this is a desperately needed harm-reduction measure, and I’m not as concerned about rewarding mediocrity (that train has left the station!) as I am about saving futures and, sometimes, lives. Kohn reminds us in Ungrading that “the trouble isn’t that too many students are getting A’s but that too many students have been led to believe the primary purpose of schooling is to get A’s.” With the pass as the cheerfully accepted default for the vast majority, and thus school’s previous “primary purpose” removed for all but the most insufferably industrious, inflation might actually decrease.
While I would love to be part of a holistic reform of the entire higher education system—everywhere is Deep Springs, but with fewer cows!—the infrastructural overhaul (much smaller classes, better-compensated faculty, but also lower tuition?) necessary for a full ungraded university may be a little far off.
For now, a reasonable way forward is simply to take the wind out of the GPA’s sails by encouraging as many students as possible to opt out of it. You can do this by providing a viable alternative. And when the GPA crumbles, many of higher education’s other toxic structures may collapse on top of it. Make no mistake: The collective sigh of relief from a generation of traumatized students should be reason enough to do this now and keep it that way—but the positive societal change will far outlast the days of the term spike protein in the lay vernacular. Like the acceptability of elastic waistbands in public, let pass-fail grading in college be something the pandemic actually changes for the better—for good.