University System Considers Ditching Letter Grades

One major university system is considering ditching letter grades in favor of a pass/fail system for freshmen students.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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letter grades

The pandemic brought out many changes in the world, and plenty of those were felt in the education sector. As schools closed their doors and kids were sent home with little to no instruction, the big concern on many officials’ minds was how to handle grading these students. Many colleges and universities shifted to assigning pass/fail grades over letter grades. Gaining traction, the method was favored by many, and one major University System is considering ditching the numerical grades in favor of the versatile method. 

The concept is picking up steam within the University of California. The Golden State’s major university system enrolls nearly 300,000 students over its 10 sprawling campuses. Several divisions within the organization are deliberating over whether or not to change the way they consider student success, in a bid to ditch letter grades. For now, that idea looks different to some.

letter grades

In some cases, this concept means students would receive a pass or no-pass grade in place of letter grades. Other ideas floating around consider giving students the option to choose which assignments receive the most weight in determining their overall grade. These ideas are being floated around in divisions like Berkeley’s College of Chemistry and Davis’ Department of Mathematics. 

All of these changes are being considered at every level, but especially for incoming first-year students. The idea behind this is the notion that incoming freshmen struggle the most to keep up with academics. A recent memo released by the UC Board of Regents illustrated how students from under-resourced high schools often perform worse on initial assignments, earning lower letter grades. And since many experts within the University believe those grades more so measure a student’s ability to complete college work, the hope is that showing leniency at first will deter students from dropping out.

Currently, Academic Senate leaders at UC Irvine are studying another major universities alternative approach to letter grading, according to EdSource. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, letter grades have been omitted for first-year students for decades. MIT uses something the higher ed organization calls “ramp-up grading” for all freshmen students. 

letter grades

For each class they take within their first semester, students are given a pass/fail grade over letter grades. If they fail a class, it does not show up on their transcript. During their second semester, graders are reinserted, but the class will still be left off of their transcript if they receive a failing grade of D or F. By each student’s second year, the normal grading system is put in place for most classes. This style has been working for MIT since 2000.

The caveat to systems that ditch letter grades are that some critics believe pass/fail courses hinder students’ ability to excel when transferring to graduate school programs. But advocates for the initiative, like Jody Greene, point to UC Santa Cruz, where letter grades were not used on students until 2001. Plenty of students from Santa Cruz transitioned to graduate school without issue. Greene, the associate vice provost of teaching at UC Santa Cruz says that letter grades are always indicative of whether a student has grasped course material successfully. 

It remains unclear as to what stage the initiative to steer away from letter grades stands at. For now, it seems to be merely a model example floating around the university system. It is an interesting ideal for universities looking to ramp up enrollment rates after two years of steep declines. But considering UC has the opposite issue, and may be enrolling more students than the system can handle, the notion is leaving some with more questions.