Grades in spring 2020 reach record high across the board at CSULB

The coronavirus pandemic transitioned graduation ceremonies to computer screens and emptied out Long Beach State’s campus. But there was one silver lining in the unorthodox spring of 2020—more As. Lots more. 

CSULB saw record-high grades for the spring 2020 semester with 60% of all grades distributed being As, the highest distribution since fall 2015. This is an increase of roughly 13% across all departments compared to spring of 2019.

“We were told by the upper administration and the provost to err on the side of leniency,” said Mark Washburn, chair of the Department of Marketing. “Basically, if we were to make mistakes in grading, [we were told] to make them in favor of the student.” 

Data showing the A to F grade distribution from Spring 2019 provided by the Institutional Research Analytics department at Long Beach State.

According to Institutional Research and Analytics at CSULB, students earned double the percentage of C grades, and professors distributed more failing grades in spring of 2019. The university saw little-to-no grade variation from 2016 until 2020, when all departments but the College of Education distributed at least 9% more As.

Henry Yeh, chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, said that the grade inflation was heavily influenced by the university’s decision to provide a later deadline for students to select credit or no credit for any class. 

Yeh also said he recognizes the impact the abrupt transition to online instruction had on the inflation. 

“A number of faculty gave all As to students,” he said. “Some professors felt that they wanted to do a good job, but couldn’t do the job they wanted because so many were unprepared to go online.”

Data showing the A to F grade distribution from Spring 2020 provided by the Institutional Research Analytics department at Long Beach State.

Many students and faculty believe that professors’ leniency towards grading during the spring 2020 semester was necessary, especially for lab classes and other courses in which students were unable to access in-person materials to finish their projects. 

“I could only go so far on a certain project because I didn’t have access to the school’s resources,” said Maricela Cedillo, a second-year industrial design major. “I still got an A, but I didn’t fully complete the class.” 

Cedillo, whose grades improved last semester, believes that the unprecedented circumstances stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic prompted professors to be more tolerant during the spring.

“They moved well with how things were changing,” she said. “They weren’t easy on people, but they were more understanding.”

Another potential contributing factor to grade inflation could have been a possible rise in cheating during virtual assessments. 

“There is no way to moderate the exams, no way to know about cheating,” Yeh said. “Professors have never done this virtual mode, so it’s a challenge, therefore the students are discouraged from studying.”

According to the Hechinger Report, ProctorU, a company that performs online exam proctoring, there was a 7% increase in cheating nationwide from April to June.

GPA trends from the fall 2015 semester to spring 2020, provided by the Institutional Research Analytics department at Long Beach State.

An increase in cheating after transitioning from in person to online examinations may seem like an obvious result. However, Long Beach State has yet to enforce a regulated system to proctor online exams across departments. 

“There is no university mandate on exams except that one point of evaluation cannot be worth more than 33% of a student’s final grade,” said Jody Cormack, vice provost for academic programs and dean of graduate studies. “It is faculty choice of when or how they use Respondus Monitor or Respondus lockdown.”

Alison Wrynn, California State University associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations and faculty development, issued a memorandum to administrators in the 23-campus system on Aug. 4, urging faculty to consider students’ lack of resources and financial instability when giving online exams. 

Wrynn encouraged all CSU campuses to offer alternative assessments, such as those allowing open books and open notes, or presentations and portfolios in lieu of traditional exams for the fall 2020 semester. 

Many professors and students said they felt that the grade inflation was an isolated incident necessary to compensate for straying from syllabi, a contract that should not otherwise vary, in the middle of the semester. 

“Everyone was trying to be lenient because we were changing mid-semester,” Washburn said. “Now, fall has a structured environment that should bring grading back into a normal and consistent range.”

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