How are students faring without covered grades?

By DIVA PAREKH | December 7, 2017


FILE PHOTO Some students feel that the policy change has impacted mental health.

With the semester coming to a close, freshmen reflect on how the rollback of the University’s covered grade policy has affected their first few months at Hopkins, and upperclassmen look back on how covered grades shaped their college experience.

In May of 2016, the University announced that it would rescind covered grades starting with the Class of 2021.

Under this policy, previous freshmen could view their first semester grades, but they were neither shown on official transcripts nor factored into a student’s GPA. Instead, each course was shown to have been completed as satisfactory (S) for a C minus and above or unsatisfactory (U) for below a C minus.

In 2008, the Homewood Academic Council (HAC) created a subcommittee to evaluate the University’s grading system. This subcommittee submitted a report to HAC in 2011, prompting HAC to vote to repeal the covered grades policy.

The announcement to end this policy prompted widespread opposition from a coalition of student groups that called themselves Re-Cover Hopkins. The movement lost its momentum in fall 2016, primarily because the decision could not be appealed.

Student Government Association (SGA) Vice President AJ Tsang said that the members of HAC are unaware of how the average student performs at Hopkins and copes with stress.

“When they voted on that proposal, they were out of touch and still are out of touch with the needs of the student body,” Tsang said.


Repealing a decades-old policy

Freshman Jacqueline Tang applied to Hopkins Early Decision and only realized afterwards that her class would be the first one without covered grades.

“Covered grades have been an integral part of Hopkins for around 50 years, and it is completely ridiculous to eliminate them. Why change a system that has seemed to work for that long?” she said. “I feel like the school stole an integral part of my freshman experience.”

Tang said that covered grades would have helped her adjust to life at Hopkins. She added that with the policy, students would find it easier to socialize instead of spending a disproportionate amount of time worrying about their grades.

Junior Alyssa Remshak questioned why the University felt the need to change its grading policy.

“I just really don’t think covered grades were hurting anyone. That’s the thing that bothers me the most,” she said.

Though Remshak was not personally affected by the change in policies, she said that the decision was unfair to freshmen who enrolled in Hopkins believing covered grades would still be in place.

“At least one of my freshman friends said that she wasn’t informed,” Remshak said. “When she was going on tours, she was still being told that they had covered grades.”

On the other hand, junior Anthony Flores was frustrated with covered grades, as his first semester of freshman year was his best academically.

“[Current freshmen’s] GPA is recorded, which in my experience helps people when they’re trying to apply for things that require a GPA,” Flores said.

Freshman Smitha Mahesh was worried that her college experience would be significantly more difficult without covered grades but has come to terms with the new policy.

“I’ve come to realize that it was a learning experience,” she said. “I can’t wish for something I can’t have.”


Academic rigor and resources

According to Mahesh, covered grades would have helped her and other freshmen focus more on the experience of learning. When deadlines to drop classes approached, she was tempted to drop classes that she enjoyed because of her test scores.

Tsang, who came in as an engineering major but switched to public health, said that covered grades gave him the opportunity to explore different areas of study.

He said that the absence of covered grades as a safety net during the first semester increases the stress students undergo.

“In a class that is three hours a week, 15 weeks a semester — out of all those hours added up, only three hours of those define a student’s grade: exam one, exam two and the final,” he said. “There’s an immense onus on students at this school due to its academic culture to perform well.”

He also emphasized the need for faculty, particularly those who are tenured, to be more conscious of student needs in the absence of covered grades.

“For them, research is the main thing,” Tsang said. “They forget that taking care of their undergraduates, that being supportive of their undergraduates is also part of their job description.”

However, freshman Rachel DePencier said that though covered grades were a good safety net to have, she would not have worked as hard from the beginning of her time at Hopkins with the policy still in place.

“It’s forced me — and all the rest of the freshmen actually — to just work harder from the start,” she said.

The University provides academic support resources for undergraduates, which DePencier and Tang said were helpful.

DePencier uses PILOT Learning for two of her classes. PILOT organizes students into groups of around 10 who meet weekly to work on extra problem sets with a trained student leader.

Assistant Director of Academic Support Ariane Kelly, who is in charge of PILOT, said that though Academic Support was not notified about the decision prior to the official University-wide announcement, they had heard rumors that a decision was in consideration.

Since the decision to rescind covered grades was announced, PILOT has made efforts to expand its services. For example, PILOT hired 40 more leaders this academic year to meet the anticipated need.

Kelly added, however, that the need was much greater than they had expected.

“Our attendance has been off the charts this semester,” she said. “Usually, after a certain period, the groups start to melt a little bit, but [the freshmen] have stuck with it all semester long. We’ve grown so much that I don’t know if we can grow too much more.”

Assistant Director of Academic Support Hope Fisher is in charge of Learning Den, a tutoring service that works on an as-needed basis, creating study groups of around six students and a trained leader. According to Fisher, there is a lack of support for certain classes, which Learning Den hopes to amend.

Mahesh, a physics major, added that since most of her classes are fairly small, there are no dedicated academic support resources for them. She said that academic support should not be restricted to classes with relatively higher enrollments.

Remshak, a Writing Seminars major, agreed that the only academic support she knows of for humanities majors is the Writing Center and that most of the academic support resources are dedicated to STEM fields.

She also believes that professors could implement clearer and fairer grading policies to help reduce stress levels.

“Professors don’t really advertise how much things are curved,” she said. “A lot of freshmen, especially ones who have had trouble making friends and don’t know a ton of upperclassmen, don’t realize that the 40 percent they see on Blackboard might end up as a B in their classes.”

An added stress for Remshak is a policy proposed by the Writing Seminars department that would require the average grade of each class to be a B.

In an email to The News-Letter, Whiting School of Engineering Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education Michael Falk discussed the changes being considered to Hopkins grading policies.

“The problem faculty confront, particularly when teaching a class for the first time, is that assessments can be difficult to calibrate,” he wrote. “A clear assessment scheme, an un-curved grading scale, and regular reporting out to students about their projected grade can help reduce student anxiety.”


Mental health in the absence of covered grades

Many students agree that the lack of covered grades is detrimental to mental health. Tang said that the new policy puts enormous pressure on students to succeed academically, forcing them to give up experiences outside the classroom.

“The culture around having to have the perfect grades and be involved in 20 clubs is incredibly stressful,” she said. “I am trying to focus mostly on academics and adjusting to college rather than getting more involved.”

Mahesh argued that in order to combat this culture, the University should do a better job of advertising mental health resources so that freshmen have the support they need in the absence of covered grades.

“[The University] should require incoming students and current students to attend a mandatory talk about why mental health is important,” she said.

According to Tsang, SGA is working with the Counseling Center to expand the Counseling Center’s locations across Homewood Campus.

“Mental health was an issue in and of itself, even before covered grades was an issue,” he said. “My worry is that the expanded efforts to support mental health in students might be outweighed completely by the loss of covered grades.”

According to DePencier, it can be difficult to meet with a counselor at the Counseling Center. She said that there is a waitlist for appointments. Remshak added that the Counseling Center should allow students to schedule appointments online.

“Some people might decide that they really need help at, say, 3 a.m. when they’re at their lowest or worst or studying for an exam, and they can’t make an appointment then,” she said. “If they had the 24-hour option to make an appointment online, it would be so much better.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Interim Dean of Student Life Tiffany Sanchez addressed the Counseling Center’s plans to expand its resources.

“We have increased contractual hours for psychiatric services to the equivalent of 2.0 full-time staff members,” she wrote. “We now have 5 individuals providing these services, enhancing both the availability of these services and the providers’ breadth of expertise.”


A level playing field?

Advocates for covered grades have pointed to how the policy eases students of all backgrounds into University life. For some students like Flores, the transition into Hopkins was fairly smooth.

“I was really used to pushing myself in terms of course load from high school,” he said. “When I got to college, that wasn’t any different. I put myself in a really intensive first semester.”

Remshak’s high school, on the other hand, was much less intensive.

“Having covered grades helped me a lot just to realize that it is okay that I wasn’t going to be getting straight A’s here,” she said. “For students like me, it was really helpful to learn how to study for the first time in my life.”

Sanchez addressed some of the programs Hopkins has put in place to help students from different backgrounds.

“Hop-In, a four-year academic support program that began in summer 2015, is designed to enhance the success, retention and, ultimately, graduation of first generation, low-income and/or academically talented yet, sometimes academically underprepared students throughout their undergraduate experience,” Sanchez wrote.

Tsang believes that covered grades helped freshmen from different backgrounds start off their spring semester at the same level as their peers.

“There are differences in educational background, in social background, in economic background,” he said. “Covered grades helped equalize that.”

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