In October 2022, the Hechinger Report highlighted “a growing movement to stop assigning conventional A through F letter grades to first-year college students.” A small but increasing number of educators at universities and colleges across the country are experimenting with alternative styles of assessment. The practice, known as “un-grading,” is meant to make the transition from high school to college easier, especially for first-generation college students. Advocates of un-grading are concerned that students have become so invested in their grades that they actually fail to learn anything. Un-grading is also touted as having benefits for students’ mental health.
COVID-19 “brought to light” the stressors faced by students, Nate Turcotte, an assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, told the Hechinger Report. Un-grading “takes stress and anxiety away… But more importantly, it prioritizes their learning,” said Turcotte. “Instead of ‘What did I get?’ it’s ‘What did I learn?’” Evergreen State College, in Washington, has dropped letter grades and switched to written evaluations while students at Brown University were given the option to choose their preferred grading methods.
Since 2000, first-year students at MIT have participated in what one school official described as “ramp-up grading.” In their first semester, students receive a “pass” grade for each course they successfully complete; if they fail, the course is not recorded on their transcript. In the second semester, they receive a letter grade of A, B, or C—but if they receive a grade of D or F, the course is not recorded on their transcript. By year two, students receive standard letter grades in most classes. “We’re gradually getting people acclimated, and they’re calibrating themselves to what it takes to succeed with our very rigorous academics,” Ian Waitz, MIT’s vice chancellor of undergraduate and graduate education, explained.
In April 2022, EdSource reported how a number of academic departments at campuses across the University of California system are rethinking how to assess student learning and exploring alternatives to the A-F grading system. Though EdSource noted that “officials acknowledge there’s no consensus across the system of the best approach,” figures such as Jody
Greene, Jody Greene, the associate vice provost of teaching at UC Santa Cruz, told EdSource, “We will be better institutions for this… As painful as the last couple of years have been, we’re now having genuine conversations about how we can better serve the students.”
News about alternatives letter grades has mostly been limited to education-focused outlets, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. In October 2022, KQED, the San Francisco NPR affiliate, republished Jon Marcus’s article for The Hechinger Report. In early 2020, during the onset of the pandemic, the Washington Post published an article on un-grading, which emphasized that “not all students are on board with ‘ungrading.’”
Jon Marcus, “Momentum Builds for Helping Students Adapt to College by Nixing Freshman Grades,” The Hechinger Report, October 4, 2022.
Michael Burke, “Letter Grades on Way out? Why Some University of California Departments May Use Alternatives,” EdSource, April 27, 2022.
Student Researchers: Onuma Dieke, Jacob Falkenberg, Grace Farnham (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)