Socially Just Grading: A Compassionate Path for COVID-19 Impacted Students

Before you do anything, stop and recall the face of the weakest person you have seen, and ask yourself: Is what I’m about to do going to help him or her regain control of their destiny?

– Mahatma Gandhi

This Ghandhian philosophy (also referred to as “the last girl”) is a social justice orientation in which communities and institutions center equity and justice in their decision making by thinking of the individual who suffers the most, has the most barriers, or who comes in last due to institutional barriers.

If we are inclined to make compassionate, socially-just decisions with the most vulnerable students in mind a Universal Pass should be considered as the most equitable option, followed by University/College-wide opt-in pass/fail. Universal Pass standardizes a passing grade for all students so that employers, graduate schools, or other external evaluators cannot stigmatize students who chose to take a pass, deeming them less competent than their peers who took a letter grade simply because they some students may struggle more than others in this transitional, dynamic crisis. If not a universal pass, a pass/fail grading system can still provide relief for students.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I oversee a course for students who are struggling academically and who are some of the most vulnerable on campus. Our basic task is to get them to pass their courses, get off probation if applicable, and re-enroll next semester. I think of those 90+ students (and the hundreds of others on academic probation and not enrolled in the course) and the wonders that a universal pass policy could do for them and their likelihood of return to campus in the fall.

I can say with confidence–and this is often affirmed by the folks working in student services with whom we closely collaborate–that academic ability/proficiency is rarely the primary factor impeding success.

Instead, we spend most of our time helping students overcome mental health challenges caused by recent or historical trauma that hinder their ability to “do school”. We spend time helping them navigate the burden of financial strains; some still can’t find a way to buy the math ALEKS program halfway through the semester because their financial aid had to be used for a family emergency. We spend time empowering them to self-advocate and navigate a system riddled with a hidden curriculum, because the ivory tower wasn’t historically built for them.

The issues these students face are now exponentially compounded. A universal pass policy this semester affords them an equitable path forward in their education.

But it is not just the historically vulnerable students to whom we must attend. We must now consider students who are newly vulnerable. This testimony from a grad student makes this clear:

I initially thought the extended break period would make it easier to get assignments completed, I was wrong.

All of my immediate and extended family is living in California where, as you know, the COVID situation is significantly worse. I have immediate family members who went outside of the U.S prior to the spread of the COVID virus; now we are trying to figure out if they should remain abroad or return to California. Many people I know are very low-income workers with no benefits and very likely to be left without income in the coming days.

The situation is impacting me economically and emotionally in ways that I had not expected while immersed in my privileged graduate school bubble.

There is absolute, unequivocal relief that a compassionate, socially just grading system would give all our students this semester, but especially those historically and newly vulnerable. If we have any hope of helping them bridge this crisis into next semester, let us choose the most equitable path that will allow students to regain control of their futures.

Jacqueline Nguyen

UWM AAUP Executive Committee