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Grading policy change draws protests at Johns Hopkins

Plans to end a decades-old policy of concealing the first-semester grades of freshman at the Johns Hopkins University from graduate school admissions officers and future employers are drawing outrage from students.

Hopkins has been one of the few schools nationwide that "cover" the grades of their newest students, shielding them on transcripts and keeping them out of grade-point averages as the freshmen make the transition to college.

But as nearby Goucher College considers joining the small club, Hopkins is planning to get out.

The policy change, which the university says was decided by a committee, is scheduled to go into effect in 2017. Current students will not be affected — they've been through their first semester, and their grades are to remain covered.

Still, two dozen student groups have united in opposition to the change.

Students say the university's mental health services are inadequate to meet the needs of those who will be stressed out by the change. They say the practice helps protect students who struggle to adjust to the demands of college.

Students demonstrated this month outside an academic council meeting, demanded the university reverse its decision and apologize for not including more students in the process.

"A lot of kids come here from private schools," said Chase Alston, a rising senior from Waldorf studying public health. "They're better equipped to handle coming to school.

"Students from marginalized populations, they may need more time to figure out what resources work for them and what study habits work for them."

A few schools — including Swarthmore, Wellesley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — have similar grading practices.

Wellesley, a women's college in Massachusetts, started a four-year pilot of what it calls shadow grades — in 2014.

Lee Cuba, a sociology professor who worked to develop the policy, said the university wanted to ease students into their college careers.

"We were interested in trying to focus students' attention on academic engagement instead of academic achievement," Cuba said. "It was an attempt to say it's important to work, but it's important to make friends, get into Boston, explore extracurricular interests, exercise.

"It was a sense that this can be a very stressful time."

Officials at Goucher College have been weighing whether to get rid of freshman-year grades. Spokeswoman Kathy Michel declined to comment on the discussion, but said a decision would come in the next few months.

Hopkins administrators say covered grades might give students a chance to goof off, put off learning good study skills, or cram difficult courses into their first semester.

"The students who we attract to Hopkins are highly accomplished and academically strong, but we do recognize that they need support in transitioning to the Hopkins environment," said Kevin Shollenberger, the vice provost for student affairs. "We feel that the best way to help them transition is to give them the study skills that help them do well here.

"We're concerned that the covered grades may delay them in seeking that type of help."

Hopkins began covering grades in 1971. Under the policy, first semester freshman year grades appear on transcripts as "S" for satisfactory or "U" for unsatisfactory.

Students are informed of the actual letter grades, but they're hidden from future employers and graduate school admissions officers.

The policy applies to all students — even those who earned straight A's. Exceptions may be made for students applying for scholarships or internships.

Hopkins officials acknowledge that the practice puts some students at a disadvantage, as some graduate school admissions officers or employers may frown on it.

Beverly Wendland, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said the decision was made by a committee of faculty in 2011, after years of deliberation.

The university held off on making the change until it could put in place programs to help students transition into college life. Administrators have boosted staff at the mental health counseling center, which has seen a rise in the number of students seeking services in recent years, as have many colleges.

But Wendland said they could have involved students in the discussion more.

"I have to acknowledge that they have a point," Wendland said.

Current students will not be affected by the change.

"The change applies only to students who enter Johns Hopkins in the fall 2017 semester or later," university spokesman Dennis O'Shea wrote in an email.

"The current policy will continue to apply — permanently — to covered grades already received by the rising senior, junior, and sophomore classes," he said. "Members of the freshman class entering this August will likewise receive grades in the fall 2016 semester that will remain covered both while they are students and after they graduate."

At Wellesley, which has covered grades for three years, about 90 percent of students surveyed said it helped their transition to college.

"I think it's a statement to refocus on what college is really about," he said. "And that's about risk-taking and exploration, and it's not about getting good grades all the time."

Charlotte Green, the president of the student government association at Hopkins, said many students' primary concern was that they learned about the policy change through a campus-wide email.

She said the SGA was not consulted.

"I knew this was probably going to happen eventually, but I was upset about the lack of communication," Green said.

She said an SGA survey of students showed that about 70 percent opposed the change.

Green started as a pre-med major, but realized in her first semester it wasn't a good fit. She said covered grades gave her flexibility to discover what she really wanted to do.

"Many students come in as pre-med and realize it's not for them during the first semester," Green said. "We were able to experiment with what we wanted during that period."

Michael Reilly is executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

First-semester performance, he said, might not matter as much as students think.

"I think most grad schools and employers look at progress," he said. "It might look bad if those students did poorly their first year, but I would look and see if that student did better over time."

A group of students who call their effort #ReCoverHopkins outlined their concerns with the change in a 27-page report. Among their complaints: their mental health issues are not taken seriously, and the environment at Hopkins is "cutthroat."

Erica Taicz, one of the organizers behind #ReCoverHopkins, said administrators and some parents who've "laughed at" their concerns just don't understand.

"I've heard a lot of feedback from parents and the administration that kind of makes it feel like we are just trying to be coddled, and it's not it at all," Taicz said. "I'm paying so much, I expect to be able to be critical of that service when it doesn't support me.

"I'm paying to have a support network, academically and mentally. I can't be expected to do well in class if I'm depressed and have anxiety. If the school is worsening my anxiety, that's their problem and they need to be held accountable for that."

cwells@baltsun.com

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