• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


'Pass/No Credit' and Signaling

A natural sociological experiment is underway.

July 14, 2020

If pandemic conditions linger for a while, the sorting or signaling function of grades will decline. We may be in for a hell of a natural sociological experiment.

Grades help to distinguish stronger performers from weaker ones. At a basic level, they determine whether a student gets credit for a class. Above that, though, they help stronger students stand out from the rest. In the setting of a community college, that has implications for transfer. Receiving schools often choose which transfer students to accept based, at least partially, on grades; in many cases, transfer scholarships are based on GPAs.

This past spring, the signals that grades sent were jammed by the pandemic.

On my own campus, for instance, we adopted a much later deadline for students to choose the pass/no credit option this past spring than we usually used. (Typically, the student had only the first three weeks of the semester to make that choice.) The rationale was that the semester had been interrupted halfway through, a pandemic was raging and it would have been unreasonable to ask students to have foreseen in early February what was going to happen in mid-March. If we didn’t know -- and we didn’t -- then it hardly seems fair to expect them to have known.

We weren’t alone in that. I have some level of faith that for the next few years at least, the spring 2020 semester will carry a sort of asterisk. A single semester like that is unlikely to do lasting harm.

But the pandemic is lingering. In many parts of the country, it’s actually accelerating. Although we’ve moved everything to virtual delivery that can be, thereby minimizing the odds of a second major disruption, other sorts of disruptions can certainly happen. Students whose family members get sick may abruptly find themselves with new responsibilities that overwhelm their academic work. Professors may get sick. The quiet epidemic of mental health crises may get worse as lockdowns linger or even intensify. And that’s to say nothing of the institutional disruptions that may follow from devastating cuts to operating support.

I’m already starting to get queries about opening up the pass/no credit option more broadly again. (To be clear, that would have to be approved by our Academic Standards committee; it’s not something I could do unilaterally. But the interest in it is the larger point.) On its own terms, the argument has merit. That’s particularly true if the K-12 schools return on a less-than-full-time basis, thereby creating a rolling series of childcare issues affecting both students and employees unpredictably.

If it becomes reasonable to make imprecise grading more widely available again, and the pandemic lingers even longer, we could get to a point at which students will graduate with a majority of their time here under special circumstances. Suddenly the signaling function of GPA is in question.

I’ll admit some sympathy with those who would prefer to consign grades generally to the dustbin of history. But if that happens, the need for receiving schools to decide whom to accept, and on what terms, won’t go away. They’ll just have to use other criteria. The same applies to employers. Grades are flawed indicators, yes, but as opposed to what? Single high-stakes standardized tests are much more flawed. Carefully cultivated individual portfolios sound good, but nobody knows how to compare them at scale. When the normative time to degree is only two years, and half (or more?) of that is under extreme conditions, students have only so many chances to distinguish themselves. If they don’t get that chance, they may find doors to the next level closed to them. Given that we have an access mission, that’s not okay.

Here’s hoping nobody is harmed in the experiment.


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