In the semesters following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a clear shift in students’ grades at Fullerton College. Classes had moved to nearly fully remote, radically changing teaching and learning styles. But that didn’t translate to grades plummeting across the board.
According to data analyzed by The Hornet, Fullerton College actually saw a 7.27% increase in A’s from Fall 2019, the semester before the pandemic, to Fall 2020, the first full semester after the pandemic hit. Months later, after three semesters of pandemic stress, A’s are still up. A’s in the Fall 2021 semester were 37.54% of total grades given, up from 32.97% in Fall 2018.
Many Fullerton College professors introduced new policies that were more lenient on students, including extending deadlines, open-book testing, and changing how many points some assignments are worth. The college was also more lenient on enrollment choices, allowing students to choose an Excused Withdrawal or Pass/No Pass at any point in the semester. Before the pandemic, the deadline for withdrawals or choosing P/NP would be two to three weeks after the class initially starts.
Some see that added flexibility as a way to support struggling students to improve grades and save them from failing classes. However, looking beyond the pandemic, faculty and administration are reflecting on whether those policies are really the best way to support students and their educational goals.
Teachers are trying out options for how to grade students
Jeanne Costello, who coordinates faculty training and is a professor in the English Department, explained how she graded assignments without entering zeros for those that were not turned in because of how much the student’s grade would drop. Instead, she left them ungraded and held meetings with students to discuss their future in the class. She provided them options on how they would be graded as well.
“I also gave students that chance to either choose to count homework towards their final grade or not. They can treat homework simply as practice,” Costello said. She wants her students to focus on the assignments and essays ahead of them instead of spending too much time catching up on older assignments.
Costello also discussed how some professors gave students a 50% on assignments that were not turned in. Others used a 1-4 grading scale, similar to how a student’s GPA is developed, as a replacement for letter grades and percentages.
Many professors tried out ideas similar to this. English professor Ryan Shiroma changed his class into portfolio-style grading, wherein a large portion of the students’ grades would be based on their growth in the class. Andrew Clifton, a professor in the math and computer science division, made his notes available for his online students and began using pre-recorded videos on the subjects.
With these changes being made and professors leaning into online education, Fullerton saw improvements in grades that have not been seen in years. Before the pandemic, from Spring 2018 to Fall 2019, A’s were 17-24% of the grades in the English department. During the pandemic, from Spring 2020 to Fall 2021, A’s have accounted for 27-30% of the grades in English classes. Mathematics saw an increase in A’s as well, with A’s accounting for 17-18% of the grade share in the semesters since the pandemic began, whereas only 13-14% of students earned A’s in math in the semesters leading up to the pandemic
Across the state, pre-pandemic numbers of A’s were around 33-35% of all grades reported from community colleges. These numbers went up to 37-40% of all grades reported after the pandemic and the semesters following it. F’s remain at roughly 9-10% statewide of all grades reported for the semesters prior to, throughout, and after the pandemic, with the exception of the Spring 2020 semester — when classes switched online mid-semester – and F’s dropped to 5% of grades.
The challenge is being flexible without lowering standards. With A’s increasing throughout the post-pandemic semesters, concerns rose amongst the campus community about whether faculty were just grading more easily and how much real learning the students were getting out of those classes. The thinking is that if professors are expecting less out of their students, they run the risk of being unprepared or unable to keep up with future classes that do not follow the same guidelines.
Some students say that raising the degree of difficulty in a class may help them more.
“I feel like because of the pandemic, the teachers kind of expected a little bit less from the students in a way. So it was easy to get those like, you know, good grades that everyone’s reaching for,” said Jimmy Garcia, a design major at Fullerton College.
Even though Garcia was easily distracted during online learning, he was able to complete his general education classes with little worry of failure. As for the design classes, he took that may lead to a career, Garcia expressed how a more demanding class may have been of more use to him.
Costello explained how some forgiving professors have passed certain students because they were not able to provide the same caliber of teaching.
“Because that’s what I’ve heard from people, that they feel like they’re giving people passes that they might not have passed pre-pandemic, because their thought is like ‘Okay, you’re getting everything in. It’s maybe not the quality that I would have expected prior, but I feel like I haven’t been able to deliver the same quality of learning that I did pre-pandemic, so why would I expect that you would be writing to the same level when I haven’t been my best teacher?’” Costello said.
Nicole Rossi, the math department coordinator, and a math professor expressed her concerns about finding the balance between flexibility and student progress in the math department.
“In math, when we meet our students, we have a necessary expectation in mind that they have some sort of prior knowledge about the subject,” she said. “That, in and of itself, is difficult because we need to fill in the gaps in the areas where students lack while also preparing them for the next classes.”
But Michael Mangan, the English department coordinator, says that just because teachers were shifting their policies, that doesn’t change what students were learning. He said the faculty’s goal has been to provide students with opportunities to grow into the standards that have been set by the end of the year while taking a flexible approach.
“One thing I will say, that I think it’s misunderstood in these discussions is, a lot of people hear flexibility and understanding, and they think standards are being lowered,” Mangan said about how professors grade students. “And I don’t think standards are being lowered at all. I think the quality of an essay is, how good an essay needs to be. That standard still very much exists.”
Did the EW option help students or turn them away?
While faculty were being more flexible with their teaching and grading, the college also gave students more options to drop a class if they weren’t doing well.
Excused withdrawals give students the option to drop a class if they have extenuating circumstances, like illness or death in the family. Before the pandemic, students were required to submit a petition for an EW to Admissions and Records. The petition was to be paired with documentation supporting their request. Any approved EW requests would not be calculated in their GPA and would not count in the number of attempts to take the class.
“When the pandemic hit, the institution made the policy decision that every student who got a W in their transcript would be switched to an EW automatically. Students didn’t have to ask,” said English Professor Brandon Floerke.
EWs pre-pandemic were not eligible for tuition reimbursement; however, reimbursements were offered during the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, EWs were a few to none of the grades reported by Fullerton College. In spring 2020, those numbers went up to 24.75% of all grades reported. In the following semesters, EWs remain at 16-17% of all grades reported.
By comparison, regular withdrawals — when a student drops a class with no refund and gets a W on their transcript — were at 13-15% in the four semesters before the pandemic. So more students have been dropping classes than before the pandemic.
Zindy Contreras, an English major and tutor at Fullerton College, said she believes the reason so many students chose to drop their English courses, aside from personal roadblocks, is the fact that some students learn best in a collaborative and discussion-based way and not having that may have hindered their education.
“Life comes at you fast. EWs are helpful to not penalize students for the different roadblocks and circumstances they may encounter in their academic life,” Contreras said.
Kristin Perez, an English major at Fullerton College, saw her grades go up during the pandemic because she had more time to focus on virtual classes. However, she used the EW option for her anthropology and Japanese classes when she got too busy.
“I think the excused withdrawal option makes registration much more simple for online classes,” Perez said in an email. “It is difficult to see if an online class is effective enough on the virtual platform, so the option to have the excused withdrawal takes off a lot of pressure.”
While an EW may have been a way for some to maintain a good GPA during a challenging time, for others, it was just an easy out. Steven Sauceda, a Fullerton College student who used the EW option to drop classes during the pandemic, didn’t end up returning.
“I didn’t know about it at first, but definitely learned about it. I’d say whatever, just because I can just get my money back and then just go back whenever. I feel like it doesn’t affect me negatively,” Sauceda said.
Costello says that the student services department has found that when students opt out of their education like that, they often don’t come back.
While there has been an increase in EWs, there has been a decrease in enrollment at Fullerton College.
Fall 2020 saw a 5.5% decline in enrollment amongst Fullerton College students when almost all classes were fully online, compared to the same semester the previous year. In the spring semester of 2021, student enrollment was 7.2% less than in the spring semester of 2020, the same semester the pandemic took over the nation.
In early spring 2022, enrollment was at about 20% less than what it was at the same time in spring of the previous year. This could mean a threat to the number of courses and programs offered to students, given that funding for Fullerton College is based partially on enrollment.
But JoAnna Schilling, president of Cypress College, says there’s not a clear correlation between the EW policy and low enrollment.
“There is no data to indicate that a student who takes an EW is less likely to return,” Schilling said via email. “Most students who took this option were struggling due to the new transition to remote learning. We have not done a specific study to see if those students were less likely to persist in their education.”
Sauceda said that he would be interested in returning to school if his classes were in-person and if he did not have the same EW option.
“I feel like it would make it more like it’s make or break. Like, rather than just having something to fall back on if you’re not doing good. It’s kind of just like, you have to push yourself harder in that way. You have no safety net. So if you’re going to do the classes, do them right the first time rather than always withdrawing,” Sauceda said.
Looking ahead to post-pandemic community college
The California Community Colleges state chancellor released a statement on their official website stating that they would make great efforts to allow students to come back to colleges through a number of actions. These actions include the distribution of funds and grants for students and other ways to maximize students’ financial aid packages.
The state chancellor’s office plans to also operate call centers that reach out to students that took EWs or those not re-enrolling.
Across the state, California community colleges had 0.1% EWs amongst all grades in Fall 2019, before reaching 14.66% in Spring 2020. Since then, EWs are down to 1-4% of total grades. According to EdSource, enrollment dropped by 14.8% from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year.
“I anticipate that the Excused Withdrawal policy will be around for a long time,” said Fullerton College Dean of Enrollment Services Albert Abutin via email. “While the COVID-19 numbers do seem to be improving in our area, we’re not officially out of the pandemic yet.”
At Fullerton College and Cypress College, the EW option is still being offered, but no longer includes tuition reimbursement and requires students to apply for it, rather than being automatically applied to all W’s.
Meanwhile, faculty are preparing to bring more classes back on campus in Fall 2022, which could translate to a shift away from some of the grading policies teachers made during the pandemic to accommodate struggling students. But some still hope that the positive changes will live on.
“In my experience, my teachers are really on top of providing us resources online, and helping us out,” Samuel Howlin, a Fullerton College student-athlete, said about the changes he has seen.
“I think it’s a good change in general,” Mangan said, in reference to how teachers adapted during the pandemic. “I hope that, if and when we get to post-pandemic teaching and learning, that some of that flexibility carries over.”
This story was produced by Jared Chavez, Mariana E.G., Holden Remme, Clarissa Perez, Nadine Valenzuela as part of the Journalism 102: Advanced Reporting class at Fullerton College. To request a copy of the datasets that were analyzed for this story, contact Jessica Langlois at firstname.lastname@example.org.