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COVID-19 grades? Pandemic prompts area colleges to implement new grading systems

Eastern Washington University students walk the Cheney campus on Friday, April 12, 2019. The school and Washington State University are offering pandemic grading systems to keep students eligible for financial aid.   (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Most college students are accustomed to letter grades ranging from A to F.

But how about XC? Or NRC?

Eastern Washington University’s XC grade and Washington State University’s NRC, or “No Record, COVID” grade, are examples of options area colleges are offering students whose studies may have been affected by the pandemic.

Whether it’s a changed grade, credit/no credit policies or other models, colleges and universities nationwide have taken similar action for the fall and spring semesters.

Not all have, however. That includes the Community Colleges of Spokane, where administrators said faculty accommodate for COVID- related absences on a case-by-case basis, such as by hiring substitutes or giving faculty additional hours to work with students individually to make up assignments.

Meanwhile, Whitworth University gave students an extended deadline to opt into a pass/no credit course, according to the university. Gonzaga University also did not adopt any major systemic academic policy changes, letting faculty address grading as appropriate to student circumstances on a case-by-case basis, said Mary Joan Hahn, senior director of community and public relations.

Despite their differences, the Washington State University and Eastern Washington University models represent efforts to safeguard their students’ financial aid eligibility due to poor grades.

“We can’t investigate the motivation of every single student,” said Mary Wack, WSU’s vice provost for academic engagement and student achievement, “but in terms of a broad policy that would benefit the students that need it the most, this is what we came up with.”

For WSU’s fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, students can request to replace grades C- and below with NRC.

Eligible students also have to attest how they were impacted by the pandemic, Wack said. Circumstances include an illness of the student or family member, economic hardship, loss of child care and inability to continue with classes via distance education.

The NRC grade doesn’t offer any credit and doesn’t count against a student’s number of withdrawal grades. The course can be repeated.

For the fall semester, students had from Dec. 23 through Wednesday to submit a request for an NRC conversion. As of earlier this week, there were roughly 4,200 grade change requests, Wack said.

The university is averaging roughly two requests per student, equating to approximately 2,100 students. For context, roughly 30,000 students – between undergrads and grads – were eligible, Wack said.

While grades ranging from C- to D- are not technically failing, Wack said most majors would force the students to retake the course to progress. Students with Cs and up are not in jeopardy of that or the financial aid concern, she said.

“We were really looking to put the safety net under the students who would need it the most, in terms of progress toward degree and maintaining eligibility for financial aid,” Wack said.

Eastern Washington University Interim President David May said university administrators only briefly considered the WSU model.

They settled on XC, a modified version of the university’s incomplete grade that gives students a little more leeway than a traditional incomplete. The XC grade indicates a student is passing and will receive credit for a course even though there is still coursework to complete or redo.

Unlike a traditional incomplete grade, an XC will meet the Satisfactory Academic Progress requirement for federal aid, May said.

“We’re telegraphing to the federal government that the student is making adequate academic progress and we’re going to award them financial aid for the next quarter,” he said.

The XC grade has been in place since the spring.

As of last week, 323 students still had XC grades from the spring quarter/semester, while another 652 had XC grades that were later changed. A total of 13,340 students attended EWU in the spring, according to the university.

Another 287 students still have XC grades from the fall; 294 had XC grades that were later changed. EWU saw 12,350 students this past fall.