An Unsatisfactory Grading System


Although the fifth Monday of the semester — the last day for students to switch a course to pass-fail — has come and gone, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’s Educational Policy Committee is considering reopening the option to take a course pass-fail after the Undergraduate Council unanimously passed legislation calling for an extension of the deadline.

COVID-19 has killed more than 200,000 Americans and strained every aspect of college life. This is no normal term, and Harvard should embrace flexible policies like extending the option of pass-fail grading in acknowledgment of this, as peer institutions like MIT and Stanford University (among others) have done. We are still coming to terms with what an online, mid-pandemic, (mostly) off-campus semester looks like, and learning how to deal. Harvard should allow students to craft a course-load that best serves their needs as we navigate Zoom classes, studying while living in unexpected conditions and keeping ourselves mentally and physically well in the midst of a pandemic that has required us to radically restructure our lives.

Back in March, we opined in favor of the universal pass-fail policy the University ultimately adopted following the abrupt switch to online classes. Many of the concerns that led us to that decision are still factors now — health challenges, difficult home dynamics, time zone logistics, etc. — and increasing flexibility for students in this certainly chaotic, perhaps apocalyptic, time can only be a good thing.

Further, if the College believes — as we do — that how a course is graded should not affect how enriching the content is or how much a student can learn from it, there is no reason not to allow flexibility to switch between the grading systems.


But this begs a bigger question: if a switch to pass-fail does not affect the material we are taught, the assignments we complete, or the exams we take, then what is the purpose of letter-grading to begin with?

While the reasons a student might need to switch to pass-fail in fall 2020 are numerous, in a typical semester, we often opt for pass-fail grading in a course because we are scared of the grade we would get in it otherwise. As a school full of students who tend towards hyper-competitiveness, the omnipresent pressure to upkeep a near-perfect grade point average has a tremendous impact on how we structure our course loads.

Under the letter-grading system, anything that jeopardizes the objective of reaching and maintaining a high GPA must go. Our campus’s obsession with GPA does nothing to further learning, as we are incentivized to avoid courses that we anticipate will be a challenge or that are out of our comfort zone. This GPA arms race fuels Harvard’s unhealthily competitive underbelly, which threatens to exacerbate the mental health struggles faced by many students. and fosters a toxic, competitive academic environment.

So while we see the UC’s proposal of making pass-fail grading more accessible to students this semester as a temporary, urgent fix, we really ought to use this opportunity to think more broadly about how the assessment of student performance at the College could be more productive and fairer.

There are many ways we hope Harvard might be different when we return; might our current grading system be one of them?

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.