An All-A Semester? Students Advocate for New Grading Models After Coronavirus Prompts Remote Classes


As Harvard classes switch online and students leave Cambridge in response to the coronavirus, a growing number of undergraduates have called on the University to modify its grading requirements.

The College currently permits students to take certain courses on a pass-fail basis. Last week, Harvard extended the deadline for students to switch their courses to pass-fail grading to April 13.

While individual departments have announced they will now also allow courses taken pass-fail to count for concentration credit, some students said an opt-in pass-fail policy is insufficiently equitable.

Benjamin I. Sorkin ’20 argued that the College should adopt a “universal pass” system where all students would pass all their courses this semester. Yale University students first proposed this model through a petition called “No Fail Yale.”


“Given the variety of conditions that students are facing right now at home — whether that’s limited internet access, or having to find a way to make money for the families, or the stress that having another individual in the household brings — it is my belief, and I think the belief in a lot of people in first-gen community, that there should be a different kind of grading accommodation for students during the semester,” Sorkin said.

Sorkin said he believes that, under an opt-in pass-fail system, students whose home environments are hospitable would be able to take courses for a letter grade and boost their GPAs. By contrast, he said their less privileged peers will be more likely to take courses on a pass-fail basis and will miss out on the GPA-boosting opportunity.

Abigail “Abby” R. Lockhart-Calpito ’23, who said she is a first-gen, low-income student, agreed. In response to the change in course format, she drafted and distributed an email template aimed at encouraging professors to champion the universal pass system.

“I believe that applying it to everyone just levels out the playing field completely,” Lockhart-Calpito said. “Students, especially first-gen, low-income students shouldn’t have to decide between their education and taking care of their family.”

Other undergraduates have proposed a second model — a “Double A” system, under which students would receive either an A or an A-minus for their courses this semester.

A new student group — Harvard for All — began circulating a petition in favor of the Double A model Wednesday afternoon, which quickly garnered over 500 signatures.

Carrington McDowell-Walsh ’20 said she supports the Double A system because she believes it ensures educational equity while still providing letter grades to students who require graded courses for scholarship eligibility, graduate school applications, and professional certifications.

“The issue with [universal pass] is that for kids who are pre-med, they need grades for certain classes and people who are going to grad school also need grades for certain classes so it doesn’t make sense entirely to do full pass,” she said. “It also goes for kids on scholarships because they sometimes need to maintain a certain GPA.”

Denisse Cordova Carrizales ’22 also said she favors Double A over universal pass. She said first-gen, low-income students rely on grades to show how they have improved academically over the course of their time at Harvard.

“I think that the first-gen and low-income community had a hard time adjusting to Harvard their freshman year or their first semester, and a lot of these students still want to attend a competitive graduate school or a professional school,” Carrizales said. “A pass-fail system wouldn’t impact a student’s GPA positively or negatively, and so some students wouldn’t be able to show off their improvement.”

Lockhart-Calpito said students should not have to worry about how losing grades will impact their future. If the College adopts a universal pass system, she said, graduate programs should respond by reading students’ transcripts with the radical changes brought on by the pandemic in mind.

“These competitive graduate programs and professional schools and summer programs are just going to have to change the way they think about student GPAs, especially at this very critical time,” she said.

Whichever new system — if any — the College adopts, Walsh said Harvard must “equalize” the differences in students’ resources and living situations, which she said recent upheavals have thrown into relief.

“When you’re on campus, we all have the same resources,” Walsh said. “But when you put us all in different places, Harvard needs to make sure that the grades that end up at the end of semester don’t just show differences in income and background.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.