UA holds grading policy forum

A universal ABC/NE grading policy would require a 60% faculty vote for approval

The Undergraduate Association (UA) Committee on COVID-19 hosted a discussion forum June 29 on MIT’s Fall 2020 grading policy. The UA plans to complete a recommendations report on grading policy by July 5, and MIT’s grading policy is expected to be announced by mid-July. 

About 40 students attended the forum. The forum consisted of a presentation and Q&A on grading options, followed by student discussions in Zoom breakout rooms moderated by UA COVID-19 Committee members.

Four potential grading schemes were presented at the forum: grading all classes on PE/NE (universal PE/NE), allowing each student to choose between PE/NE or ABC/NE across all their classes (choice grading #1), allowing each student to choose between PE/NE or ABC/NE for each individual class (choice grading #2), or grading all classes on ABC/NE (universal ABC/NE).

According to Section 2.64 of the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty, PE indicates an A, B, or C level performance during a Significant Disruption; NE indicates a D or F level performance “for which no record will appear on the external transcript”; and IE indicates an “incomplete” subject for which “a portion of the subject requirements has not been fulfilled, due to a major disruption of the Institute’s academic activities.”

For the choice grading options, three options for when in the semester students must choose their grading scheme were presented: by Add Date, by Drop Date, or after seeing final grades.

According to the UA’s document on potential grading policies, the UA modeled the grading options off of other universities’ Spring 2020 terms and student feedback from a UA survey released June 21. The survey addressed grading, academics, MIT’s fall decision-making timeline, residential life, and international student concerns. 

The forum and survey will inform the UA’s recommendations to the Academic Policy and Regulations Team (APART), a group of faculty and administrators charged with adjusting academic policies in response to COVID-19. Forum participants were also invited to contribute to writing the UA’s final grading policy recommendations in a July 1 email from the UA Committee on COVID-19. 

Fiona Chen ’21, UA COVID-19 implementation policy and ethics subcommittee lead, said at the forum that due to the short timeframe of MIT’s campus disruption in Spring 2020, the UA was unable to gather student feedback before recommending administrators to adopt a more lenient Spring 2020 grading policy. 

However, the UA hopes to represent the student body when making recommendations on Fall 2020 grading because APART “did care a lot about getting student feedback” and will take the UA recommendations “rather seriously when making their decision,” Chen said.

The UA’s Preliminary Recommendations on Fall 2020 Grading Options, released June 25, state that a grading scheme in which instructors individually decide whether their students should receive PE/NE or ABC/NE grades is “nonviable.” According to the report, 60% of upperclassman respondents indicated that they “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” of this grading option.

Allowing instructors to choose a grading scheme “leaves students too vulnerable to the judgments and whims of individual professors,” especially when “several professors have demonstrated a lack of sympathy towards students’ struggles in transitioning to an online learning environment,” the report writes. 

The report adds that asking every instructor to choose a grading scheme “adds even more uncertainty and delay to the timeline for class selection,” increasing stress for students.

The report states that “D” and “F” grades should be replaced with “NE” because “students should not be penalized for the rest of their MIT careers and beyond for doing poorly in extenuating circumstances.” Furthermore, “NE grading decreases the likelihood that students in virtual semesters will cheat on assignments” by lowering the pressure on struggling students.

According to the report, 84% of upperclassman respondents to the UA survey supported replacing D and F grades with NE.

The report also recommends that APART maintain an “open channel for student feedback” and “hold focus groups with student communities that would be disproportionately affected by the grading policy,” such as the first-generation, low income community, underrepresented minority groups, and mental health advocacy groups. 

Prateek Kalakuntla ’21, UA COVID-19 academic subcommittee lead, said at the forum that incoming first years will most likely be graded under the regular Pass/No Record system for the fall term.

Some students expressed concern at the forum that PE/NE grading would be viewed unfavorably by employers, graduate schools, or professional schools. 

Natasha Hirt ’22, UA COVID-19 implementation policy and ethics subcommittee member, said that based on graduate and professional schools’ public statements about spring and summer term grading, “schools that see that your undergraduate institution has declared that grades will be on PE/NE understand that this marks a disruption in the course of learning and will accept the ‘pass’ grade in most cases.” Hirt added that some schools will take “a more holistic approach to admissions” in upcoming years. 

However, “that will depend strongly on the institutions that you’re applying to,” Hirt said.

Kalakuntla said that the academic subcommittee is communicating with MIT Prehealth Advising and graduate school advisors for feedback on the grading options. 

Rick Danheiser, chair of APART and chair of the faculty, announced in an email to the MIT community June 25 that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a “Significant Disruption” will be in effect for the summer and the upcoming fall and spring semesters. 

Section 2.64 of the Rules and Regulations writes that a Significant Disruption allows but does not require the Chair of the Faculty to enact PE/NE/IE emergency grading. A Significant Disruption was declared March 13 for Spring 2020, after which full-term and Quarter 4 subjects were graded on a PE/NE/IE basis

Kalakuntla said that APART determined in the spring that the two choice grading options “fit within the regulations” of Section 2.64. However, the universal ABC/NE grading policy would require a 60% faculty vote for approval.

Danheiser wrote that APART is “seeking input from both students and instructors” about grading policies for the fall semester and that a decision will be made by “mid-July.”

Students can provide feedback to the UA COVID-19 academic subcommittee at or submit an anonymous feedback form.

Editor’s Note: Fiona Chen was previously an opinion editor for The Tech.