Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 12, 2024


Students have been pushing for alternative grading systems since Hopkins suspended in-person classes for the spring semester.

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Sunil Kumar announced in an email to the student body that the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences (KSAS) and Whiting School of Engineering (WSE) will adopt a universal satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) grading system this semester. 

The email, which was sent on March 27, states that the administration acknowledges that the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak — which prompted all University courses to proceed online — pose a variety of challenges that not all students would share.

An additional email sent by KSAS and WSE clarified that all undergraduate grades will be limited to S or U grades with no impact on a student’s overall GPA. Additionally, all courses necessary for degree requirements can be fulfilled by a satisfactory grade.

The universal S/U grading policy will be automatically applied to all courses, with no opt-in or opt-out option. Because professors will register either an S or a U into Student Information Services, students will not have the ability to uncover their grades. 

Prior to these University announcements, students petitioned the administration to adopt non-traditional grading systems. One petition, with 1,907 signatures as of March 25, pushed for universal S/U grading. Another asked the University to give all students either an A/A- this semester. This petition had over 2,000 signatures.

In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Rojahne Azwoir, who initially supported the A/A- policy, explained why she was content with the University’s decision to implement a universal S/U system.

“Though I think the double A policy would have benefited the most people, universal pass/fail is best to avoid disadvantaged students from being negatively impacted by this situation the same way that the opt-in would have further punished them for their extenuating circumstances. So I support it,“ she said. “Though I am aware that not everyone’s happy, I think this is a good compromise.”

Likewise, senior Cyndy Vasquez wrote in an email to The News-Letter that S/U grading is the most equitable way to address the diverse needs of students. Vasquez, who is a first-generation, limited-income (FLI) student, said that the transition to off-campus learning has made the semester frustrating — particularly because she was on-track to get good grades. 

Now that she is living at home, Vasquez said finding space and privacy to do her work is challenging. 

“I was emotionally preparing myself to deal with getting bad grades this semester because of all of the factors outside of my control,“ she wrote. “It has to be acknowledged that, for many students, the ability to live on campus with access to University resources is a great equalizer that allows us to perform at our best, and to suddenly get that safety net taken from you from factors outside of your control and still be expected to perform the same academically is unrealistic.” 

Freshman Lubna Azmi, who is also a FLI student, echoed Vasquez’s sentiments. In an email to The News-Letter, she argued that the University committing to a universal policy would be beneficial to both FLI students and the community as a whole.

She also expressed her belief that a S/U system will not necessarily make students less eager to excel in their academics. 

“I’m continuing to work just as hard in my classes. This doesn’t deter my motivation. It just alleviates any stress,“ she wrote. “I’m fortunate enough right now that the pandemic hasn’t upturned my life like [it has for] many of my peers so I’m thankful for that, and it’s necessary that other students in positions like mine advocate for solutions that benefit students who aren’t in our positions.”

Senior Kendall Free, who is president of the Black Student Union and president of the Multicultural Leadership Council, further explained that these inequities in student resources made an opt-in policy unfair to students who also utilize on-campus services — such as PILOT and Learning Den — because their GPAs would not have the opportunity to benefit from this semester’s grades.

Although she personally believed a universal A/A- option would provide the most academic equality to students, she understood the administration’s stated concerns with this approach. 

Free added that prior to the University’s announcement she had emailed Vice Dean of Undergraduate Education for the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE) Michael Falk to voice these concerns.

In his email response to Free, Falk wrote that the WSE Curriculum Committee, which was composed of himself, three other faculty members and four Student Government Association (SGA) representatives, met on March 25 to discuss the aforementioned alternative grading policies.

He said that the Committee’s grading proposition aimed to focus on three principles: flexibility, student autonomy and equity. Falk added that the SGA members on the committee offered valuable insight into some of the student body’s concerns. 

“The student representatives did a great job relating cases of individual students struggling at home with out-of-work parents, lack of access to basic necessities, environments unsuitable for study,“ he wrote. “They also were very clear in relating why the various policies appealed to different groups of students and shared the results of the poll that was launched with SGA support. I was very proud of the commitment that our SGA and our students bring to weighing in on these issues and being frank about their own challenges and the challenges their peers are experiencing.”

This new grading policy only applies to ongoing Hopkins courses. Spring half-semester classes that have already concluded, which are more commonly taken by WSE students, will not be affected by this policy change. 

Sophomore Steven Solar is a biomedical engineering student who was enrolled in such half-semester courses. In an email to The News-Letter, he wrote that his final exams for his half-semester classes were held after the University announced the transition to online-only courses. 

This meant that he had to study for his final exams while also packing to leave Baltimore and he ultimately was required to sit for the exams at home. He said that he wished that the University had taken this into account. 

“The same students whose full semester grades have been hindered by this will also have half semester grades affected by this,” he wrote. 

However, Solar was grateful that the University decided to enforce a universal S/U system for the rest of the semester.

“I’m a big supporter of universal pass/fail. I think it’s the only equitable decision in terms of grading. I think opt-in/out disadvantages hardworking students who have been personally impacted by the crisis. And the A/A- policy disincentivizes hard work. If you work to get an A, but miss by a few points and get an A-, you might as well have put in 0 effort and failed to get that same A-,” he wrote.

Senior Aran Chang co-founded JHU Help, a group which has acted as a bridge between the student body, SGA and the administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Solar, he had concerns about fair grading. 

“A covered grade policy is none at all. At least some group that was going to be severely disadvantaged and couldn't focus on their grades because of what’s going on would get some relief from the fact that the administration is trying to show some care for the student body,” Chang said.

Freshman Sofia Angel, who said that she was involved in lobbying the administration to adopt a non-traditional grading policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, wanted students and the administration to be aware of how students now face unique disadvantages. 

“Right now, academics isn’t the main focus,” Angel said. “Even though [some] people may be in a situation where they can study to their full potential, [the administration] realizes that there may be students in quarantine, there may be students with families in quarantine. There may be students that are running out of food. There may be students [whose] parents are now unemployed... I’m glad that they realized that everyone has different circumstances and that they changed it to pass/fail to keep it the most equitable. It shows that they value the health of their students and their family members.”

Jake Lefkovitz and Rudy Malcom contributed reporting to this article.

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