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College of Charleston will not allow pass-fail grading this fall, despite student protests

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Around 45 percent of the College of Charleston's student population have signed an online petition requesting a more flexible grading option this semester. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The College of Charleston will not implement an optional pass-fail grading policy this semester, despite pleas from some students who say the change would alleviate anxiety and stress caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 4,500 people have signed an online petition calling on the university to allow students the option to implement a pass-fail option for their fall 2020 courses instead of a traditional letter grade. 

Doing so, they said, would allow students to successfully complete their current coursework without fear and stress of it potentially negatively impacting their grade point average.

On Thursday, college officials confirmed the school will not update its grading policy this semester.

Instead, it extended the deadline for students to withdraw from a course they’re failing and will allow students to choose one course during the spring 2021 semester that can be graded using the pass-fail system.

"We recognize this decision will not be universally popular, but we also believe it is the right decision," college Provost/Executive VP of Academic Affairs Suzanne Austin and Simon Lewis, speaker of the Faculty Senate, wrote in a joint email to students.

"Since classes began this past August, faculty have been encouraged to be flexible with their assignments, attendance policies and grading, and that flexibility has resulted in some very positive outcomes during a difficult time," they said.

The decision was made in consultation with faculty and student leaders on campus, their message said.

An analysis of students’ midterm grades showed a "notable increase" in the number of As, Bs and Cs compared with previous years, resulting in a higher combined GPA across the entire student body, Austin and Lewis added.

"Despite the current stress levels, we see no reason to anticipate a sudden decline in this achievement level," they wrote.

Meredith Hutchens, a junior at the college, said she helped organize the petition to raise awareness of the challenges and burdens students have faced this year.

"This is just about trying to get a resolution that shows the semester has been challenging for us and this would take the stress off of what it means to be a student in a pandemic," she said.

After the petition was posted in early November, it gained more than 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. 

While not all petition supporters were College of Charleston students, Hutchens said she was impressed that the 4,500 or so signers represent around 45 percent of the university's 10,000 person enrollment. 

College of Charleston's total student enrollment this semester is around 10,0000. 

A similar petition lobbying for pass-fail grading circulated last spring after campus was abruptly shut down in mid-March. 

The college ultimately agreed to the change due to the unplanned shift from in-person to online learning, Austin and Lewis said, but it was never designed to be a "a long-term, multi-semester strategy."

The fall semester has been very isolating for students, Hutchens said, many of whom spend most of their day tuning in to classes from behind a computer screen. In large part, professors have done their best to accommodate students’ needs, but learning online simply doesn't compare to the instruction students would normally receive in person, some say.

"Morale has been very low. It’s hard because all the fun things that make college worthwhile, we can’t do," she said.

Hutchens, who is double majoring in math and economics, said she considers herself to be a good student. She’s performing well in most of her classes this year but is struggling in others, including one advanced mathematics class.

Most students she knows wouldn’t use the pass-fail option for all of their courses, Hutchens said. Instead, it would provide relief from one or two classes where students really need the help. 

"Having a C or D can just completely destroy years of hard work for your GPA," she said.

Hutchens was disappointed to see the college decide to not implement a relaxed grading policy this semester.

Extending the withdrawal period doesn't do much for high-achieving students who are interested in attending graduate school, she said, since withdrawing from a course will show up on students' transcripts. 

"That's not really an option for us," she said. 

She plans to email the college president and provost in hopes that they'll reverse course on the decision. 

The state's two largest colleges, the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, also opted to not implement widespread pass-fail options this semester despite pleas from some students. 

More than 4,000 students at the University of South Carolina signed an online petition in October requesting a pass-fail option so students’ GPAs wouldn't be impacted by bad marks from virtual classes. 

The college typically allows pass-fail grades for courses outside of a students' field of study, but expanded the option for all courses last spring.

Like the College of Charleston and Clemson, USC officials decided to not make any changes to its normal grading procedure this fall. 

Earlier this month, the College of Charleston's Student Senate passed a resolution supporting the implementation of a pass-fail option this semester. 

Students' last day of in-person instruction is Tuesday, followed by Thanksgiving break and a week of online learning. Final exams start Dec. 8. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that not all people who signed the petition were College of Charleston students. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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