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Colleges switch to alternative grading systems during coronavirus outbreak

UMass Boston has allowed students to switch any number of classes to pass/fail following online petitions that garnered hundreds of signatures.
UMass Boston has allowed students to switch any number of classes to pass/fail following online petitions that garnered hundreds of signatures.Jonathan Wiggs

As colleges shift to remote studies during the COVID-19 outbreak, students across the state are urging administrators to forgo standard letter grades in light of the upheaval caused by the pandemic.

Through virtual petitions, social media, and advocacy groups, students are pressuring their schools to adopt a pass/fail or universal 'A' evaluation measure for the spring semester, following the lead of Smith College and Pennsylvania State University, among others.

“This is not a normal time — it’s a crisis,” said Jasmine Mora, one of 2,000 University of Massachusetts Boston students who signed a campus petition. “Having more lenient methods for grading relieves a lot of anxiety for us.”

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Last week, MIT became the first and only Boston school to institute an across-the-board passing grade/no grade record system for the spring semester. Under that system, if students fail a class, it does not appear on their transcript.

A number of schools have followed suit. Boston College and UMass Boston have allowed students to switch any number of classes to pass/fail, and Northeastern University students are permitted to take two pass/fail classes this semester. All three decisions followed online petitions that each garnered hundreds of signatures.

Harvard University extended its normal deadline to opt-in for pass/fail classes, but each student’s application is reviewed and approved individually.

Administrators are also considering changes to the regular grading system at multiple schools, including Harvard, Boston University, Emerson College, and Suffolk University, according to messages sent to students this week.

Students said a more lenient grading system could ease the burden on those who feel ill-equipped to complete the curriculum during the crisis. Members of the Emerson College Student Union rallied behind a pass/fail policy in a list of demands that included eight pages of student testimonials. Many described difficult home situations, illnesses, financial struggles, and general anxiety that impacts their academic performance.

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“My whole life right now has basically been thrown to the wind,” one junior wrote. "If I had the option to take classes pass/fail, I would finally have power over something, anything, right now.”

A UMass Boston community organization, RED House, called for a pass/no record policy at all public colleges and universities in Massachusetts in a letter sent to the college’s chancellors on Monday.

“No one should have to fail during a pandemic,” the group said.

Harvard For All, an undergraduate advocacy group, proposed a more extreme approach: an automatic 'A' or ‘A-’ for every student in all classes. The idea isn’t unprecedented — students at Columbia University, the University of Texas Austin, and more have backed similar ideas this spring.

Founding member Sanika Mahajan, a junior social studies and global health policy major at Harvard, supports the universal 'A' policy because she feels an opt-in policy forces her classmates into a difficult decision. By choosing, students may feel they are taking the easier path, no matter how extreme the outside circumstances, she said.

“Opt-in stigmatizes students who have to elect themselves into it,” said Mahajan. “This model is more equitable.”

Mahajan said a universal 'A' system also quells the worries of students who plan to attend graduate school, since an pass/fail grade could hurt their chances of admission.

Many students share those concerns. Berklee College of Music sophomore Dev Ryan supports a voluntary pass/fail option but worries it might hamper her academic future.

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“If you did the work and came to class, you should be able to get the credit without all the worry,” she said. “But a lot of people, including me, don’t know how any of that would work for course credit.”

Under normal circumstances at many colleges, classes taken pass-fail do not count toward a students’ major or minor requirements. And some students, even amid a public health crisis, have voiced concern that the elimination of standard grades will tarnish their academic record.

At MIT, more than 600 students signed a petition objecting to the school’s mandatory pass/no record policy because of its effect on their grade point averages. MIT students normally take all classes pass/no record during their first semester of freshman year.

“The current decision to apply [pass/no record] grading to all classes ... is causing undue stress to a significant number of students who believe this semester’s grade may play a meaningful role in their future academic and career plan,” the petition stated.

Belle Townsend, an economics major at Boston University, fears that this semester may jeopardize her plan to finish college with honors and then attend graduate school. Still, she knows the opt-in pass/fail measures on the campus petition, which she has not yet signed, would help her in the moment.

“I’m just worried because it’s very important to have competitive GPAs for grad school,” she said. “I want leniency, but not at the cost of my future."

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Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_