How Will Colleges Evaluate Students during Pandemic?

10 April 2021

When schools around the U.S. closed starting in March 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions, more American students than usual received low grades.

Now, many people are wondering: How will colleges and universities consider promising students who had trouble in school?

Information gathered by the Reuters news agency shows that the number of very low grades increased by two or three times in some places. School closures and the move to internet classes affected all grade levels in U.S. schools.

Reuters looked at schools in big cities like Chicago, and in smaller places like Carlsbad, California. Schools in all areas were affected by the move to teaching by video, or distance learning. But communities where people are poor and most students are minorities appeared to be affected the most.

Fairfax County, Virginia, is a large school system outside of Washington, D.C. A report showed that the largest increase in failing grades in Fairfax came from students who did not grow up speaking English and those with learning problems.

FILE - Charvi Goyal, 17, gives an online math tutoring session on Jan. 4, 2021, in Plano, Texas.
FILE - Charvi Goyal, 17, gives an online math tutoring session on Jan. 4, 2021, in Plano, Texas.

Grades drop compared to a year earlier

In Carlsbad, the number of Fs, the lowest grade possible, increased three times in the first half of the current school year compared to the same time the year before.

In the school system that includes Las Vegas, Nevada, 13 percent of all grades were Fs, compared to six percent the year before.

Many states offer tests to understand the progress of their students. The same test is given to every student in each grade. The results of those tests in North Carolina have not been good. More than half of the students who took exams in math and biology received a rating of "not proficient."

The math examination given to students in 9th grade resulted in 66.4 percent of students getting the "not proficient" rating. A year ago 48.2 percent received that rating.

Jonathan Plucker is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. He said it may take two years to make up the gap in learning.

"If we don't find ways to help them start to catch up, these gaps are going to get bigger," he said.

How will colleges rate students?

Many school systems around the U.S. are expecting to receive increased money from the federal government in the coming years. Some of the money will pay for internet learning, after-school and summer programs. Schools hope that students will go back to classes in person, get extra help and improve their grades.

But what about those students who will be applying to college this year or next?

Older high school students, like those who will be graduating in 2022, may no longer have grades colleges will like. Some high schools even changed the way they give grades. Classes where the best students once received an A grade have changed to what is known as "pass/fail." This hurts students who did well in those classes because they cannot show colleges a good letter grade at the end of the term.

Some strong universities in the U.S. also decided they would not require students to take the SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement tests. Many group tests were canceled when the coronavirus restrictions barred large events.

Those schools are now considered "test-optional." Some of them include universities like New York University, Colgate University and Harvard University.

So how can a college evaluate a student without traditional grades and test scores?

‘Standards and expectations'

Eric Hoover writes about college admissions for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said universities are getting used to the idea of making "adjustments and allowances" for the many things that are missing from students' high school transcripts.

In addition, he said, top colleges "have had to loosen all kinds of rules and standards and expectations this year."

That is because qualified students could not show records that had letter grades for every class.

About a year ago, a project organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Education helped the heads of admissions from 300 colleges and universities say what they "care about in this time of crisis." It was called Making Caring Common.

The document says students should be sure to let the admissions office know about the problems they faced during the pandemic. Universities said they understand that many after-school activities were canceled. They also know that students may have had to take a job or help care for a sick family member.

Some of the schools that signed on to this document were American University, Caltech, Hamilton College, Johns Hopkins, The University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina.

Lasting effects

Hoover and others at the Chronicle of Higher Education spent a lot of time writing about the way admissions officers thought about students who would be graduating early in the pandemic. Those students have now been accepted to college. Now, universities are considering the next group of students. He said they will be affected by the pandemic's "long tail."

"So, students might feel like they have to make up for lost time when they finally get back to in-person learning, either this spring or in the fall, but I think colleges are not expecting students to leap over the moon."

When VOA contacted a number of universities to discuss how they will consider future students' grades, they chose not to answer.

Even with the problems of the last year, Hoover said colleges want to see that students found a way to take on difficult projects. Also, he said, they should not give up on getting good grades. That is because colleges may be "test optional, but no one's going grade optional."

Without a lot of normal activities like sports, theater and music, colleges are making decisions about students based on how seriously they take their studies.

"Colleges are often impressed with students, who in addition to getting great grades, particularly in the subjects that they plan to study in college and major in, but also take those interests outside the classroom, right? Into their community, into other kinds of contexts."

The pandemic may have caused colleges to change how they judge students. But they still want students who take learning seriously and will do well in the university setting.

I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Reuters and the Associated Press contributed material. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

Has the pandemic affected your grades? What are you doing about it? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

proficient –adj. skilled or good at doing something

gap –n. a difference between two people, groups or kinds of things

optional –adj. available by choice but not required

adjustment –n. a small change that improves or makes something work better

allowance –n. the act of thinking about or including something when you make a plan

transcript –n. an official record of a student's grades

standards –n. (often pl.) a level of quality or requirements that are considered acceptable or desirable

leap –v. to jump

particularly –adv. more than usual; especially

context –n. the situation in which something happens; the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens