At UC Santa Cruz, grades matter — but the process doesn’t.
Universities seek to inspire change and educate the bright minds of the future by challenging young people to think critically. UCSC was founded with that mission in mind, offering a unique grade-less pedagogy. Students could abandon the competitive, quantitative rigamarole of letter grades in favor of a central focus on learning past the letter.
This system gave students short evaluation essays in lieu of traditional grades at the end of each quarter, in which instructors detailed a student’s performance and achievements or lack thereof. The practice was widely lauded for emphasizing learning over grades, and providing a more holistic picture of a student’s success.
However, UCSC moved away from its narrative evaluations in the face of decreased enrollment during the 1970s. In 1981, Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer implemented a number of significant academic changes — most notably, a letter grading option for courses.
By 2000, letter grades were mandatory.
Now, in 2023, another 20 years after the last major change to grading, UCSC is completely unrecognizable from its origins. Redwoods still surround the classrooms, but the central focus on learning over production has been cut and ground into a fine dust.
The rigor of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, in particular, is setting students up for failure.
“I had a new professor in CSE 12 […] About a third of the way through the course, he started sending super ominous messages about how half the class was cheating,” said fourth-year electrical engineering major Zane Bzeih. “Every single day, it was crazy. It’s a pretty difficult class, a weeder class. He ended up failing about half of the class.”
“Weeder” classes are overly difficult required courses often taken by first- and second-year STEM majors, with the purpose of weeding out all but the highest performers.
Instructors of weeder classes often boast about their courses’ high fail rates on the first day of each quarter, warning each new class that they, too, will fail, if they don’t start early on every assignment, attend every lab session, and place the course above all their other priorities.
“[In CSE 100], a lot of kids tend to get caught cheating, and it’s especially stressful because if you fail any of the labs, you immediately get dropped from the course,” Bzeih said. “That’s another class where 40% of kids end up retaking because they can’t keep up. A lot of the professors are upfront that these classes have a high fail rate and that is ‘how we intend it to be.’”
Students in weeder classes have been denied DRC accommodations, belittled by course staff for not understanding material, and forced to waste long hours in TA sessions waiting for individualized help that often never comes, due to a high staff-to-student ratio. Others have felt pressured to change majors due to the insurmountable difficulty of the classes in question.
Cruelty is the point. This destructive culture of assessment has been tangibly damaging.
“The main problem [is that] in order to graduate in four years […], you cannot really afford to fail a class. You’re taking a prerequisite for the class you’re taking next quarter. And then, that class is only offered once, maybe twice a year. It’s tough to plan out, and you need everything to go right,” Bzeih said.
If failing even one lab costs you your entire quarter, or failing one class costs you an entire year, how can our grading system claim to properly assess an entire degree’s worth of learning?
A study conducted by the UC Office of the President (UCOP) found that “standard grading practices may perpetuate bias.” Traditionally underrepresented groups in academia, such as Black, Latine, and Indigenous students, are often hit hardest by these policies. Students from under-resourced high schools are further disadvantaged and frequently outperformed by their more affluent counterparts. Though the study found that students in these classes can grasp the material, evident in high grades in the final weeks of class and on the final, the difficulty and pace of the early portion may leave students in too big a hole to dig themselves out of.
UCOP puts it even more simply.
According to the study, “the approach does less to show what students have learned via the course than it does in showing how students compare on the basis of preparation for the course.”
The UC has identified the problem, and other institutions have identified solutions that aim to support students in adjusting to a rigorous university workload.
Brown University, for instance, allows students to choose what grading system they want to participate in — in addition to grading scales of A-B-C or Satisfactory/No Credit, students can also request written evaluations of their work. MIT has implemented a Pass/No Pass grading system for first-semester students, with an A-B-C-No Record scale for their second semester. Other schools, such as Evergreen State and Hampshire Colleges, still solely utilize written evaluations.
Known as “ungrading,” such processes extend a kind of grace to create a level playing field between students, regardless of their academic background.
While it’s not a complete return to a world free of letter grades, ungrading champions a similar value system that offers leniency and support to new students. As they navigate their first year of university, they can often juggle other responsibilities like working and caring for family members. This would allow STEM departments to retain the letter grades they hold dear while also recentering students’ learning and comprehension rather than their material output.
Regardless, our current grading systems and teaching methods are more hurtful than helpful to the students they’re meant to serve. STEM at UCSC is clearly in need of deep structural change. It needs to be intellectual, rather than punitive.
It is time for our campus to return to the forefront of innovative thinking, even if it means returning to our roots.