- The Washington Times - Monday, October 14, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has dropped its traditional letter grades and replaced them with a pass-fail system, following the lead of other elite medical schools.
Medical school officials began discussing the change last year, in part because they worried that the letter-grade system was discouraging potential students and fostering an unhealthy competitive climate.
A survey of students who were accepted to Hopkins but decided to go elsewhere showed that the grading system was one of the main reasons.
Walter Cheng, 26, a third-year Hopkins medical student and self-described "classic B student," called the new pass-fail system a "nice cosmetic change" to a school with a reputation for being overly intense.
"People who are applying to the school, it kind of reassures them that it really isn't as cut-throat as its reputation may seem," said Mr. Cheng, who sits on the education policy committee that first debated the change.
Medical school is hard enough without the pressure of grades, faculty members say. The first two years, spent largely in the classroom, are packed with basic science courses, such as molecular biology and biochemistry.
The new grading policy, instituted schoolwide beginning this semester, is designed in part to help change the mindset of those obsessed with getting an A.
"Because medical students come from this high-pressure, pre-med world, it's very important in medical school to do everything we can to get that out of their system, and get them to just not worry about grades and worry only about learning and caring about people and caring about patients," said Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of the neuroscience department and a member of Hopkins' advisory board.
An expanded pass-fail system will enable outstanding work to be recognized as such and for residency directors to draw distinctions among large pools of applicants.
Many top-tier medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, Duke and Stanford, use some form of a pass-fail system.
Dr. William B. Guggino, a professor of physiology at Hopkins who also sits on the education policy committee, said it was hard under the old system to differentiate levels of excellence.
Dr. Guggino also ended up counseling his share of students who had trouble accepting that C's on their transcripts wouldn't prematurely end their medical careers.
"There's plenty of examples of people who were in the middle of the class [or] near the bottom of the class, who ended up being great doctors," he said.
Not everyone supported the new four-level grading system. Some wanted to continue using letter grades, believing that it was a professor's job to draw out differences in student performance and that classroom competition was healthy.
Some preferred a system that was strictly pass-fail to measure only mastery.
Student reaction has been mixed. Dr. David Nichols, vice dean for education at Hopkins, said first-year students seem to like the simplified system. But other students who are used to the letter-grade system and thrived under it aren't so sure.
Some members of Mr. Cheng's class are worried that the switch could hurt their chances of landing a highly competitive residency.
"We're just a little bit worried that perhaps people might not understand what the change is all about," he said.
"There's a little bit of anxiety there, but I think those are things that will pass with time as all the kinks get worked out."
As always, students will have written recommendations from faculty members to support residency applications which can be more telling than even letter grades.


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