Return to Pass/No Pass?

Kaitlin Woolery

Photo Editor

Life at Saint Michael’s College suddenly changed the third week in October when several students tested positive for COVID-19 immediately sending those students into isolation, while many other students identified as “close contacts” were asked to quarantine. The number of students in isolation and in quarantine reached over 150. As a result, classes immediately went remote for a few days, which extended to a week, followed by an announcement that all classes were to remain online the duration of the semester. 

During the 2020 Spring semester many college students across the country were faced with an unprecedented pandemic and lockdowns at home. St. Michael’s College, along with many other colleges and universities offered students the option of receiving a grade of pass/no pass which helped alleviate stress affiliated with the hardships caused by the disruption in education. Students did not have to worry about grades negatively impacting their GPA.

This Fall, many schools are again deciding to offer the pass/no pass option due to stress and disruptions caused by the increased cases of Coronavirus. According to their websites, UMass Boston, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, and Georgetown University recently implemented pass/fail policies for the Fall term. Middlebury College in Vermont is offering a credit/no credit option limited to one class this semester. Will Saint Michael’s College offer this option again for the Fall 2020 semester?

I reached out to Registrar & Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Marnie Owen and Associate Dean Tim Mackin to answer the following questions:

Q: How was the decision made to offer a pass/no pass option to students last Spring?

A: “The Pass/No Pass was implemented as a response to the unprecedented and unexpected disruptions of the spring semester due to COVID-19. The move to virtual or remote instruction was a necessary response to the rapid onset of the pandemic, but it was also not part of the academic plan when classes began in January 2020. Students and faculty thus had to make relatively abrupt and unexpected adjustments to these new circumstances. While those adjustments went well overall, we wanted to provide options for students who were concerned about any effects on their academic performance. Changing to Pass/No pass was also in keeping with how many colleges and universities were responding to the relatively sudden change to virtual or remote courses across the country. Because of this, we felt the Pass/No pass would not put our students at a competitive disadvantage when they chose to apply to graduate and professional programs after graduation.”

Q: What percentage of students took advantage of this option last Spring?

A: “Out of the 1,893 people who took a class in the spring of 2021 – including undergrads, graduate students and non-degree students – 471 (or ~25%) elected to convert one or more passing grades to “P” grades.”

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of offering a pass/no pass option?

A: “The Pass/No Pass relieved pressure on students who struggled with the unexpected adjustments, and it minimized any negative consequences for their GPA by eliminating failing grades and diminishing lower ones. It did create some problems, however. GPA is a helpful indicator of students who are struggling academically, so the Pass/No Pass has made it more difficult to identify those students and provide extra help and guidance. Many of our majors and programs also build upon previous coursework, where students need to master skills and concepts to be fully prepared for upper-level courses. The Pass/No Pass makes it harder to gauge whether a student is ready for those courses, which can lead to struggles down the road. We’re already seeing the effect of both of these concerns with students this fall, and those problems would be magnified if a Pass/No Pass were offered in back-to-back semesters.”

Q: With the spike in positive COVID cases and classes going online, has there been any thoughts on offering a pass/no pass option for Fall 2020?

A: “The Pass/No Pass was an important part of our adjustments to the shock of the pandemic, but it also involved a significant compromise of our academic standards. In addition to the problems for individual students described above, persistent compromise of academic standards could diminish the perception of a Saint Michael’s degree and possibly create problems for our accreditation. Those problems would be compounded by the fact that there’s been no larger movement in Higher Education toward Pass/Fail or Pass/No Pass grading this fall, which also could create issues for our students pursuing graduate and professional degrees. Unlike Spring 2020, we’ve also known about COVID, the potential for an outbreak, and the possibility of moving to virtual courses on short-notice since the beginning of the semester. That possibility has been a central part of our academic and campus planning and our communications to the SMC community about the fall. For all of these reasons, we have decided that an additional semester of Pass/No Pass grading would not be in the best interest of the college and its students.”