Faculty elects to eliminate high pass

At the faculty meeting on March 8, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to eliminate the “high pass” grade for the Winter Study term, beginning with Winter Study 2018. This will change the possible grades for Winter Study to “pass,” “perfunctory pass,” and “fail.” The motion passed by a vote of 68-2.

The decision was made in response to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC)’s recent correction of a policy to convert three-pass grading systems into grade points. This would make the “pass” grade worth 3.0 grade points, which would negatively affect the GPAs of many students applying to law schools. Although the rule had been on the LSAC’s books since 1970, it was only implemented this year, when it was discovered during an internal audit of the council, according to Barbara Casey, registrar of the College. A change back to a two-pass grading system will mean that future Winter Study grades are not included in students’ GPAs as calculated by LSAC.

While the LSAC decision provided the impetus for the change, the faculty had a larger discussion about whether any benefit actually came from having that grading option, which guidelines suggested should be given to fewer than one in 10 students. “The Committee on Educational Affairs [CEA] had a general discussion on whether the High Pass was benefitting students in any way … the answer was no,” Casey said.

Faculty also had concerns about the way in which the high pass interacted with the intent to have Winter Study be a time focused on exploration rather than grades and performance. “There was tremendous inconsistency as to how the high pass was assigned, from year to year and from class to class … Having the high pass in some ways made Winter Study feel like a regular semester class, and what we wanted to do was to encourage students to try something they might not otherwise try, including something that might be challenging,” David Edwards, professor of anthropology and chair of the CEA, said.

The CEA opted to propose cutting the high pass grade instead of the perfunctory pass grade because of the value the latter has for analyzing students’ academic standing. “The Committee on Academic Standing [CAS], when it deals with students having academic difficulty, was finding that there were cases where [it] got a better understanding of the situation students were in, when they were getting in trouble during Winter Study,” Edwards said. Indeed, during the faculty meeting, Professor of Statistics Richard De Veaux cited recent cases in which the perfunctory pass option has helped the CAS to assess a student’s academic standing at the College.

The three-pass system was conceived of in the mid-1990s, in an effort to make Winter Study more rigorous. This revision saw the addition of the high pass and perfunctory pass grades. “Winter Study as a whole was being reviewed … there was general concern that students weren’t taking it as seriously as some faculty hoped,” Casey said.

The new Winter Study grading system will not apply retroactively, and student GPAs, for LSAC purposes, will still include grades that were earned under the three-pass system. Retroactively changing grades would contravene both LSAC policy in calculating GPAs and College policy on allowing instructors independence in assigning student grades.

The College is continuing negotiations with LSAC, however,  in hopes that it might reconsider its retroactive application of the conversion policy to students applying to law school from the College before the new policy takes effect in 2018.

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