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To improve student retention, some colleges consider 'ungrading'

DON GONYEA, HOST:

The end of the academic year is here. But for many first-year students, it might be the end of their college career. About 1 in 4 won't return for their sophomore year. As colleges grapple with how to prevent students from dropping out, an old idea is getting a second look - doing away with letter grades, at least for that crucial first year. Ki Sung from member station KQED reports.

KI SUNG, BYLINE: UC Santa Cruz sophomore Loki Malak barely made it through his freshman year.

LOKI MALAK: 'Cause I didn't do well.

SUNG: And the most challenging part about that year...

MALAK: Is not the coursework. It's learning how to be an adult. Like, I had to learn how to balance my finances. I had to learn how to balance work and school and the relationship I'm in.

SUNG: His grades suffered as he began to feel overwhelmed.

MALAK: I had to learn how to kind of become a person, and grades were absolutely an added stressor. And it hurts to not do well 'cause I was a very gifted kid.

SUNG: And like so many students, when his grades slipped, his mental health took a hit, too.

MALAK: It took a while for me to, like, detangle my sense of self-worth from the grades that I was getting.

SUNG: Student mental health concerns, like Malak's is one of several reasons college campuses are now considering doing away with traditional letter grades in favor of an alternative practice called ungrading.

JODY GREENE: The thing about grades is they are not related to learning.

SUNG: That's Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at UC Santa Cruz.

GREENE: Grades are not a representation of student learning as much - as hard as it is for us to break the mindset that if the student got an A, it means they learned.

SUNG: Greene has been a longtime advocate of ungrading because researchers have found that traditional grading systems can be inequitable and unreliable. A group of freshmen on campus, including Serena Ramirez, agree.

SERENA RAMIREZ: I am so concerned about getting an A that I'm just so stressed in the class that I can barely focus.

SUNG: Tamara Caselin and Denilson Perez, who are first-generation college students, also feel the pressure.

DENILSON PEREZ: Students talk more about the grades. Like, oh, I got a A in this class. I got this grade in this class. And it's very competitive.

TAMARA CASELIN: We're people of color. So it was a lot of pressure to have good grades all the time.

SUNG: Especially for freshmen, getting good grades comes amid all the other challenges of adapting to college life for the first time. So what can ungrading look like? Jody Greene has a few examples.

GREENE: It can mean not having grades. But it can also mean if you complete this amount of work, you will get these grades.

SUNG: Imagine getting a written assessment of your skills throughout the semester and reading about how your skills developed. Ungrading could also mean deciding how you want to be assessed. Is it a project or a report? - based on goals and areas of improvement you have for yourself. It could also mean more standardized pass, no-pass options.

GREENE: And so it takes the kind of bad magic out of the grading process.

SUNG: MIT, Wellesley College and Brown University are among the growing number of research universities that have various forms of ungrading programs in place for first-year students. And the push is not just about reducing stress. In California last year, a UC Board of Regents report found that traditional grades mostly reflect existing economic, social and educational inequities. Critics of ungrading, among them Rick Hess at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says grades prepare students for the real world.

RICK HESS: To tell me that these students are too fragile at age 18 or 19 for their educators to actually give them feedback on what they've learned or what they've mastered strikes me as missing a pretty significant element of the purpose of higher education.

SUNG: Hess says things like grades and assignments...

HESS: Can be enormously useful handrails to help you make your way.

SUNG: Without letter grades, he's concerned that students won't know if they're doing well. This concern is not new at UC Santa Cruz. While the campus opened in the 1960s as a leader in ungrading, by 2001, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to make letter grades mandatory, citing concerns about the need for grades to qualify for scholarships and graduate school. Even though Loki Malak is no longer a freshman, they see the promise of ungrading for first-year students.

MALAK: Taking away one of the barriers to access and to success isn't coddling as much as it is empowering. The world has always been hard. And as students that are coming into college during this pivotal moment in our global history, we're more aware of that than any other generation.

SUNG: Malak, who says he barely made it through freshman year, is now on track to graduate in 2025. For NPR News, I'm Ki Sung.

(SOUNDBITE OF KADUWA'S "FREE THE ROBOTS")

GONYEA: This story was reported in collaboration with The Hechinger Report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ki Sung