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Among the many existential, personal, and pedagogical questions that have occupied Harvard affiliates during our viral separation, one question has begun to take on a particularly frenetic public discourse: How should Harvard grade its undergraduates? Of all the options on the table — “Double A” model endorsed by the Undergraduate Council President and Vice President, various opt-in setups, differentiated timelines — a universal pass-fail system is by far the most equitable grading option.
This would not be unique. MIT, Wellesley College, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College, among others, have all implemented such a system, as they seek to support students in the multivalent complexities of their now far-flung lives.
At a time when our lives and those of our friends and families are at stake — when a sense of normalcy is all but lost — it is callous to expect students to maintain their usual academic attention. Differences in the grades students might earn this semester would primarily reflect arbitrary variables — one’s time zone, access to technology, mental and physical health, and living situation. Under such a system, the typical letter grade model would not faithfully differentiate between students’ effort and ability. Disproportionately hurting already imperiled students, it would exaggerate inequality in our community and threaten students’ capacity to focus on their wellbeing.
Understandably, there may be students who were counting on letter grades this semester — not least for scholarship eligibility. For them, a pass-fail grade may feel devastating. In light of more pressing concerns about equity, however, any change must be universal. An optional system would incentivize students to competitively signal to professors and employers that they went above and beyond. Choosing pass-fail would likely be quietly but powerfully stigmatized, but it would also be the choice most necessary for those most impacted.
Furthermore, an optional system would only magnify the inconsistencies among departments and instructors. Without universal action, each concentration will, as they already are, independently decide whether to accept “passes” for concentration credit, creating a confusing and unequal patchwork of policies.
To be sure, the “Double A” proposal, which would limit grades to either an A or A-minus, according to a UC poll, has majority support. We find this model improbable and impractical. It adds fodder to existing concerns that Harvard inflates grades, which only undermines the credibility of our transcripts. Students at the Law School have shown that advocacy plays a central role in guaranteeing equitable grading. The UC leadership cannot risk its negotiating credibility with such an unlikely proposal, especially when more probable and beneficial proposals are on the table.
But Harvard has to go above and beyond. To further mitigate students’ stress, it should, first, consider acknowledging — ideally on transcripts themselves — the extenuating circumstances for students who do not pass. It should, second, actively communicate with other institutions to ensure students are not adversely impacted in their future pursuits.
Moreover, if the standard model ultimately prevails, students should not be limited to the new April 13 pass-fail deadline — even extending the deadline to after final examinations as McGill University has.
The University cannot slip into the often tempting rhetoric of pass-fail as an impetus for student laziness, nor can it pretend that academic life is somehow normal — that Zoom doesn’t glitch or that Hong Kong is on EST. Acknowledging the extreme difficulty of this moment requires a bold change in grading policy. That policy is universal pass-fail.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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