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Here’s how Brown’s COVID-19 grading policy compares to the rest of the Ivy League

Four Ivies adopt variants of Pass/Fail as default grading option, Zia writes that U. system offers more flexibility

Over the past month, members of the Ivy League have begun adopting new grading policies in wake of campus closures and the transition to remote learning spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes have stimulated mixed reactions from their undergraduate student bodies. 

The University’s most recent grading policy update maintains letter grades as the default system and extends the Satisfactory/No Credit grade option deadline to May 1. This latest deadline extension, announced in an April 3 email from Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01, was a follow-up to previous communications stating that the deadline would be pushed to April 17, as previously reported by The Herald. 

The Committee on Academic Standing has also “established guidelines to assure that no student’s academic standing will be adversely affected by their coursework this Spring 2020 semester,” Zia wrote.

Student records will be reviewed by CAS on an individual basis and notations from the committee will not be recorded on external transcripts, Zia wrote in an email to The Herald. 

The College Curriculum Counsel has removed restrictions on the limit of S/NC courses students can take to still be considered for concentration honors programs, Zia added. 

With the support of the CCC, Zia intends to encourage that during the recommendation period for senior honors at graduation, student GPAs be calculated twice, both including and excluding spring 2020 grades, such that “students who reach the top 20 (percent) based on either calculation are recommended for Magna Cum Laude.” 

How does the University’s policy compare to the rest of the Ivy League?

Currently, four Ivy League institutions have changed the default grading option for all undergraduate classes to Pass/Fail variants: Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard and Yale. Restrictive policies regarding credit application or limits on the number of courses which can be taken without a letter grade have shifted to accommodate these changes. 

At Dartmouth, students will take courses for the spring term “CT/NC,” or Credit/No Credit. Harvard has changed its grading options to Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory with a clear notation on all transcripts of the "extraordinary circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic." Both Yale and Columbia have adopted universal Pass/Fail grading systems. 

These changes have largely been gradually implemented and are not without controversy. Apart from the debate between optional versus mandatory Pass/Fail, many students have voiced support for alternative grading systems. 

At Harvard, the student group Harvard for All proposed the “Double A” system, in which the only grading options are A or A-. The student group No-Fail Yale is advocating for an extension of the universal Pass/Fail policy wherein all undergraduates are guaranteed to receive a Pass or Pass with Distinction grade. Universal Pass at Brown has stood in support of No Fail Yale’s proposition of a Universal Pass system, and is asking the University to adopt the proposal as policy.

Cornell, Penn and Princeton have all adopted policies akin to Brown’s, where students can now change their grade options regardless of previous restrictions. 

At Cornell, students have until May 12 to elect Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading for any class or to drop a class without penalty. Following the May 12 deadline, students can drop a course with transcript notation and petition to change their grade options to S/U until the end of the semester, May 23. 

Undergraduates at Penn may opt for Pass/Fail grades for any course until the last day of classes, April 29. Additionally, the university has suspended nominations for the Dean’s List for the 2019-2020 academic year. 

Princeton students may now elect “Pass/D/Fail” for their classes through May 12; students are typically only allowed to take one course per term on this Pass/Fail system with a D letter grade option, according to Princeton’s grade option site. At these three schools, additional policy changes have been made regarding restrictions on the number of Pass/Fail courses which may be applied toward general education, major and other requirements to allow students to change grade options without penalty.

“No student needs to fear a failing grade during this pandemic.”

The flexibility of Brown’s S/NC system offers what other mandatory Pass/Fail grading systems may lack, Zia noted in an email to The Herald. Regarding recorded failing or unsatisfactory notations on external transcripts, he wrote that “Brown has not recorded such grades for over 50 years” as NC grades are only documented internally. As such, he added, “no student needs to fear a failing grade during this pandemic.”

The administration’s dismissal of a Universal Pass system was rooted in “clear guidance” that the University had received from its regional accreditation body, the New England Commission of Higher Education, Zia wrote. Implementing Universal Pass would be “inconsistent with the standards for accreditation.” 

The rejection of Universal Pass by the University has been met with varying levels of content. In a YouTube video uploaded to her channel, Zion Lewis ’20 expressed support for the student group Universal Pass at Brown. This video, in which Lewis explained the objectives of Universal Pass at Brown and her own beliefs as to why they should gain momentum, has received approximately 1,600 views since its posting April 8. 

Michael Chen ’22, who has petitioned against Universal Pass, suggested compromise. The current opt-in S/NC policy is more feasible than Universal Pass, Chen said, as giving credit for incomplete coursework would “be taking away the education that (students) signed up for.” 

But reflecting on the administration’s messaging that professors use discretion during this time, Chen indicated that the University could further support students by guaranteeing that students can pursue accommodations such as late submissions, regardless of their instructor’s pre-existing policies. Under such a system, students would not fail classes so long as “they are willing to catch up with the work long-term.” 

The Road Ahead

As global conditions and messaging from higher education institutions continue to shift, students at Brown continue to pursue changes to the spring 2020 grading policy. Universal Pass at Brown was unable to comment before press time. According to an April 16 announcement on the group’s Facebook page, UCS President William Zhou ’20 agreed to support their proposal to the Faculty Executive Committee, which would further extend the S/NC deadline until after the spring 2020 final examination period.


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