IZA Discussion Paper No. 15887

Unintended Effects of the Flexible Grading Policy

Using an unbalanced panel of 23,007 academic records spanning from Spring 2019 to Spring 2022 representing one fourth of Queens College student population; and estimating event study analyses with individual fixed effects to control for time-invariant unobserved heterogeneity, we find unintended effects of the flexible grading policy (FGP), which allowed students to exercise the pass/fail option during the first academic year of the pandemic. Once the policy was no longer available, students who had used it underperformed relative to their own pre-pandemic performance relative to the change in performance of students who had never used the policy. FGP users earned 5.3% lower GPA in Spring 2021 and 4.7% lower GPA in Fall 2021 relative to Fall 2019 relative to the change observed among FGP non-users. This pattern is robust to sensitivity analysis and holds across tiers of the 2019 cumulative GPA distribution, as well as across various socio-demographic groups. Furthermore, these detrimental effects increased with the intensity of the policy use. Students’ response to a survey rules out that these findings may be driven by pandemic-related health shocks, childcare disruptions, or challenges with online learning, financial aid, or job loss. We estimate that using the FGP is associated with a 16% lower likelihood of graduating and a 18% lower likelihood of graduating on-time by Spring 2022.

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