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Blouch: We should adopt a permanent pass/fail grading system

A blue and green graphic depicting two people conversing with text bubbles that say "Collegian Columnists."
(Graphic Illustration by Falyn Sebastian | The Collegian)

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board. 

In the past, I have discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the value of a degree. Because universities were forced to offer classes online instead of in person, this affected the ability for individual universities to differentiate themselves from each other and presented a unique opportunity for alternative learning institutions to stake a claim in the market.

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The traditional grading scale evaluates everyone on the same measure, despite individual differences in styles of learning or any other personal factors.”

Many institutions, including Colorado State University, offered pass/fail grading during semesters where a majority of classes were online. While this felt like a necessary, albeit desperate act to keep struggling students enrolled at the universities, it changed the value of grades.

The pass/fail system is rather simple. Instead of the traditional grading scale, where students are given a grade based on a continuum, the pass/fail system offers only two options. This implies that a student who did very well in the class could potentially earn the same grade as a student who barely passed. There is no clear distinction.

In the world of pass/fail grading, what would be an A, B or C on the traditional grading scale are fundamentally the same, and the difference between those letter grades becomes irrelevant. In other words, instead of a grading system that asks, “How well did you learn the material?” the binary grading system simply asks, “Did you or did you not learn the material?” The nuance between the letter grades becomes null and void.

The decision for universities to adopt pass/fail grading during a desperate time forces us to reflect on the traditional grading style.”

While some might argue that the pass/fail system was only offered during dire times and that it wasn’t enough to have an actual impact on how we value grades as a whole, I disagree.

At CSU, the pass/fail system was offered for four semesters, including summer 2021. Thousands of students, dozens of classes, all with the option to opt into a binary grading system — that cannot be ignored.

The use of the binary grading system exemplifies how outdated the traditional grading style is and how ineffectual it can be at evaluating students’ proficiency in a given topic. The traditional grading scale evaluates everyone on the same measure, despite individual differences in styles of learning or any other personal factors.

If someone has a day off and doesn’t perform well on a test, this has the potential to completely tank their grade. They might actually have proficiency with the material, but for one reason or another, this isn’t being reflected accurately through the traditional grading system. A pass/fail grade accounts for this nuance.

Grade point average, which is a number that reflects one’s average grade over their whole course load, is oftentimes not even a good indicator of competency or one’s ability to perform a job. In 2013, Laszlo Bock, then-senior vice president of people operations at Google, told the New York Times that GPAs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”

This isn’t to say that companies don’t care about GPAs. Forbes writes, “According to a 2013 survey of more than 200 employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 67% of companies said they screened applicants by their GPA.”

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It’s important to keep in mind that even when companies do evaluate a candidate by their GPA, this is just one piece of the whole picture. They also take into account extracurricular activities, internships and other accolades. GPA alone is not enough to explain someone’s competency.

The decision for universities to adopt pass/fail grading during a desperate time forces us to reflect on the traditional grading style. Even if we do not reform it completely, it’s time that we start to ask bigger questions about the importance of grades and how we can better reflect one’s competency without using grades alone.

Reach Cat Blouch at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @BlouchCat.

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About the Contributors
Cat Blouch
Cat Blouch, Social Media Editor
Cat Blouch is the social media editor at The Collegian. They are a fourth-year student at Colorado State University studying business administration with a concentration in marketing and a minor in statistics from Delta, Colorado. They have been on The Collegian's team since the summer of 2020, starting on the opinion desk and later joining the photo team. Blouch began their social media interest by working on the @colostatememes page on Instagram and looked at the social media editor position as a way to further engage with the CSU community. They are excited to find new ways to hear the voice of the student body and engage more with readers through their positions at The Collegian. Blouch enjoys the flexibility of being able to pursue creativity in multiple mediums at The Collegian. When Blouch is off the clock, you can find them engaging in other creative areas such as creating music, writing poetry or filming a video. They hope to continue their creative pursuits after college through work in marketing analytics and content creation.
Falyn Sebastian
Falyn Sebastian, Digital & Design Managing Edtior
After becoming a page designer as a sophomore, Falyn Sebastian evolved from print editor to design director and has now officially begun her new position as digital and design managing editor. Originally from the Big Island of Hawaii, she chose to attend Colorado State University to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in graphic design along with a minor in entrepreneurship. When it comes to arranging content in The Collegian's newsprint, Sebastian formats and arranges the visual media that readers love in a physical copy. After attending content and budget meetings with the editors of each desk, she manages how each week's visual content fits into the paper by clicking through Adobe InDesign. With a combination of original photos, illustrative graphics and advertisements, Sebastian organizes and delegates tasks to her talented and ever-growing design team. As a graphic design student, journalism was not a field Sebastian intended to work in during college, but she embraced the world of publication design through The Collegian. As graphic design focuses on the importance of effective communication, she realized she was truly designing for a fulfilling purpose. Student media will forever have a happy home in her heart. Working with other students who are passionate about what is happening in their community drives her to continue working on impactful design. Sebastian looks forward to what is yet to come while gaining new experience and memories with her staff.

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