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Maryland universities expanding use of pass-fail grading, citing challenges amid coronavirus pandemic

With all in-person classes canceled as a result of coronavirus precautions, universities in Maryland are expanding the use of pass-fail grading for undergraduates for the spring 2020 term.

The University of Maryland, College Park; the Johns Hopkins University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Towson University are amending their normal grading policies to account for a historically unusual spring semester.

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Colleges and universities in the state have ceased in-person classes for the rest of the school year due to restrictions against crowds of 10 or more, an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has been confirmed in nearly 1,000 Marylanders and has killed 10 as of Saturday.

All University of Maryland undergraduate courses in spring 2020 will be graded pass/fail unless the student elects to receive an earned grade for the course, according to Mary Ann Rankin, provost and senior vice president.

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“Pass” grades do not contribute to students’ grade point averages, but “fail” grades, do, Rankin said in a letter to students, faculty and staff. Students should confer with their advisers about their individual situations, the provost said.

“A note will be included on student transcripts indicating the unusual circumstances prevailing in spring 2020,” she wrote.

Recognizing the challenges of remote learning “are not evenly felt by all students,” two of Hopkins’ largest schools, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering, are adopting satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading this semester for their undergraduates, according to Sunil Kumar, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

The deans of the university’s other schools will decide whether to opt in to the pass-fail system and announce those decisions directly to their schools’ students and faculty, he said.

“With the significant disruption to our way of life and academic and societal norms, it is keenly important that we take a holistic view in determining how best to measure academic performance,” Kumar said in a letter posted to the university’s website Friday. “All of the changes are based on the common recognition that we must provide greater accommodations to our students in this unusual and disrupted semester.”

The Hopkins provost expressed gratitude to the university community “for showing flexibility, humanity, and resolve over the past several weeks.”

For many Hopkins students, receiving a pass or fail grade after a semester of learning “may seem antithetical to our nature as achievers,” Kumar wrote.

“We believe our divisions have adopted approaches that best maximize equitability and meet the needs of each student body in this unique time,” he wrote.

Hopkins is focused on ensuring its students, faculty and staff can finish the semester “with the least amount of disruption possible,” the Hopkins provost’s letter said.

UMBC is encouraging its students to wait until after the final Spring 2020 grades are posted on May 27 to decide whether to request a change to a pass/fail grade and before making the decision to withdraw from a course or from the entire semester, the university said on its website.

“We hope that by offering this flexibility, students will be able to adjust to their new academic environment and focus on doing well in their coursework to successfully complete the Spring 2020 semester without the need to withdraw,” UMBC said.

Towson is allowing students the option of whether to be graded pass-fail or on the normal letter scale, “in consideration of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the spring 2020 semester and the rapid shift to a distance education format,” the university said on its website.

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“Students are strongly encouraged to consult with their advisor to discuss possible academic implications prior to electing the Pass Grading Option or withdrawing from a course,” the university stated.

More than 664,000 people worldwide are known to have contracted the acute respiratory disease as of Saturday night, and more than 30,000 have died, according to Hopkins.

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