Student Achievement

Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This Year?

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 11, 2020 12 min read
Image shows an illustration of a hand coming through a computer and grading a paper.

From coast to coast, school districts that have primarily served students via remote learning are seeing dramatic increases in the number of failing or near-failing grades on students’ quarterly report cards and progress reports.

About a third of high school students in St. Paul, Minn., had a nonpassing grade at the end of the first quarter. Similar patterns are showing up in Los Angeles, Houston, several districts surrounding San Diego and in the California Bay Area, and two large districts near the District of Columbia—Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md. In Salt Lake City, reports of three times as many failing secondary grades were so worrisome that students mounted a protest last week to demand in-person schooling.

The unprecedented wave of low grades testifies to how many students are struggling with extended doses of remote learning. The factors run the gamut: a lack of reliable Wi-Fi access or devices for students, sporadic attendance, and disengagement, all leading to missing assignments.

And teachers—from large cities to tiny communities—say that virtual formats have exacerbated those problems, interfered with their attempts to build relationships with students, and hindered their ability to assess the topics students need help on.

“I watch these kids get more and more frustrated, and more detached, because even if they wanted to learn everything they could, things are getting in the way of that that they have no control over. And neither do we,” said Matt Holden, a teacher in an upstate New York school district.

Now those problems are running headlong against the K-12 system’s creaky, inflexible, and often biased grading practices.

In all, the situation portends a spring in which perhaps thousands of students will be asked to repeat a course, attend remediation, or in a worst-case scenario, fail to graduate.

Old Grading Problems Worsen During the Pandemic

When the coronavirus shuttered nearly all of the nation’s public schools in March, most districts quickly moved into triage, instituting “pass/fail” arrangements or allowing students’ completed work over the final weeks of the semester to boost, but not lower, their final marks. Few officials at that time felt that the pandemic would continue into the 2020-21 school year.

But as the crisis continued and school began in the fall, most districts reverted to their old grading systems, in part because of the infrastructure that depends on those grades: Senior transcripts need to be prepared for college admissions. Grades determine access to specialized middle school programs, magnet schools, and sports scholarships.

Many districts invested in technology upgrades and professional development over the summer and hoped that would improve instructional delivery enough that they could assess student work in the usual ways. The sobering new figures on failing grades suggest those efforts haven’t made up for the disruption the pandemic has wrought on nearly all facets of K-12 schooling.

“This is just unacceptable to anyone,” said Joe Gothard, the St. Paul, Minn., superintendent. “There is not a single student in this country who is to blame for COVID-19, [yet] we know the impact is harming students in disproportionate ways.”

Among the primary issues is sheer ability to access content. Perhaps as many as 3 million students, according to one estimate, have simply dropped off districts’ radar screens; others continue to struggle with unreliable broadband or devices.

About half of the students who failed last year during the first quarter had attendance issues, said Micheal Thompson, the principal at St. Paul’s Johnson High School; this year, it’s about 75 percent or 80 percent. “If you’re not there, you’re just not making it,” he said.

In Pittsburgh, Pa., 9th grade English teacher Derek Long estimates a quarter of his students are not logging in regularly—and about 1 in 10 of them almost never do. Some have yet to receive a reliable device. (Like many other districts, Pittsburgh had to compete to purchase a limited supply of laptops and tablets over the summer.)

At Standley Lake High School in Jefferson County, Colo., English teacher and department chair James MacIndoe and his colleagues spent one afternoon analyzing the contributing factors for every student in the school with a failing grade. One group consists of students who aren’t attending at all; a second, those who are logging in but not engaging. A third bucket consists of those who are trying to engage but not turning in quality work or enough work.

“The question is not, how can we get these kids who are close to failing to not fail. It’s, what is not working for those kids?” MacIndoe said. “How can we do a better job for them?”

There is not a single student in this country who is to blame for COVID-19, [yet] we know the impact is harming students in disproportionate ways.

Much of teachers’ and leaders’ concerns focus on the students who are most vulnerable during the pandemic—those experiencing homelessness or poverty, for example. The data on grades bears out those worries. In Los Angeles, needy students scored lowest on a benchmark test; in Fairfax County, rates of F grades in the first quarter of the school year more than doubled for English-learners and students with disabilities over the first quarter of 2019-20.

But those problems are compounded by longstanding problems with grading, such as implicit bias, which can lead to Black students and other students of color receiving lower grades than their white peers for comparable work. And the pandemic has unveiled all sorts of troubling new equity considerations for teachers.

In the Baltimore city district, where most students have had remote learning since the fall, 4th grade English and social studies teacher Katie Scotti has wrestled with the idea of homework. After all, she notes, everything is homework these days, and too many of her students have other responsibilities at home or lack a quiet place to do it. So she’s trying to make sure students complete the work during their remote learning sessions—a complicated task when attendance is sporadic.

“I can’t reiterate enough that we don’t want to give a kid a zero of out 16,” she said. “A zero means you haven’t done anything or don’t know anything. But they could know a lot.”

Lack of Engagement Is District Leaders’ Chief Concern About Grading

Many teachers point to the difficulties of establishing safe, trusting classroom environments as one factor that has made assessing work much more difficult. Nearly all teachers began the year with new rosters and have had limited, if any, in-person time with these new groups of students. One-on-one Zoom time helps but isn’t a panacea.

“The students I’ve never met before who may be new to the school, who are not completing their work on a regular basis, I feel those are students I could normally reach out to and figure out what was going on and assess them more authentically,” said Scotti. “But when they’re not on camera and I’m not seeing their work, I don’t know what the issue is, and I’m not able to provide instruction that meets their needs.”

Ebony Lee, a Black 9th grade English teacher in Indianapolis, prides herself on being authentic in the classroom and, especially, how it helps her connect to her Black students. But it’s taking longer in a remote environment.

“I’m one of the few Black teachers that a lot of our Black students have had, and it is so much easier to get that connection. They connect with me because I remind them of Mama, or Auntie, or someone,” she said. “But is it the same level of connection [now]? No way.”

School and district leaders also point to other, more subtle reasons that are affecting grades across the board. The St. Paul district realized that its own remote-learning software is challenging to use for the nearly 30 percent of students in the district who are learning English.

“Our learning management systems are very text-heavy, and when students aren’t able to access a language or read and follow directions it makes completing work very challenging,” Gothard said.

In Pittsburgh, Long said he worries about giving students too many discussion questions, short assignments, and other tasks, leaving students with an ever-longer list of assignments to complete when they log on.

“When you multiply that by eight [teachers] and put it on a list, it’s overwhelming. A struggling student who doesn’t log on all the time anyway is going to close their laptop and go back to bed,” he said.

And in Jefferson County, MacIndoe and colleagues realized that the district’s online gradebook requires teachers to assign and calculate point values for every assignment. That system does not easily mesh with alternatives, like so-called standards-based grading.

(That practice broadly refers to assessing whether a student has mastered specific standards—like two-digit multiplication or writing a thesis statement—rather than comparing their work to other students’ or averaging every assignment into one final mark.)

“We are realizing we are falling victim to the ‘grading industrial complex’ of online gradebook programs,” MacIndoe said. “Practically every program I have ever used is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of standards-based grading.”

Teachers Are Duct-Taping Their Grading Systems

Standards-based grading remains relatively uncommon, though it has gained ground at the elementary level. Yet a few districts have gone even further.

In October, the San Diego district’s school board approved a grade policy that separates factors like behavior, punctuality, and attendance from whether students have mastered standards, so they don’t skew the overall score. (Nonacademic factors will be weighed in a separate citizenship score.)

The policy requires teachers to give opportunities for “reflection, revision, and reassessment” as well.

“We’re still using our same level of rigor and curriculum; we’re just giving students more than one opportunity to show they’re demonstrating mastery,” said Nicole DeWitt, an instructional support officer for the district.

Experts who study equitable grading practices support those ideas.

“If kids can pass without doing their homework, how useful is the homework?” said Thomas Guskey, a professor emeritus in the college of education at the University of Kentucky who has written about grading. “And what are we doing to kids? We’re failing them not because they haven’t learned, but because they aren’t compliant.”

Pandemic Grading Tips From Teachers

Districts set a variety of different grading parameters—some, for instance, don’t allow teachers to give scores below 50 out of 100. But teachers have flexibility on other aspects, and the ones Education Week spoke to made these suggestions to prevent students from being penalized due to factors outside their control.

  • Consider allowing students a grace period to turn in major course assignments or permit them to revise work if they initially score poorly on them.
  • Consider multiple ways of assessing student knowledge—through oral interviews, for example.
  • Focus on feedback on daily assignments rather than collecting enough scores to make up a grade.
  • Teachers should coordinate with their peers to make sure students aren’t overwhelmed with tasks (like too many discussion questions, do-nows, exit tickets, quizzes, and so on).
  • Be wary of combining measures of participation or behavior with a measure of student learning.

Teachers across the United States interviewed by Education Week, though, generally felt they had less flexibility from their own school systems.

Some teachers said they would like to revert to a pass/fail system; others want the ability to assign “incompletes” at the end of a term, rather than a D or an F. Still others fret about sending the wrong message by loosening up their grading systems too much.

Many are now informally adopting other tactics that they hope will stop factors outside of students’ control from affecting their marks.

In Indianapolis, Lee is giving her students lots of extra time to turn in any missing major course assignments, like papers or tests. She is optimistic that of the 60 students she estimates have a failing score right now, most will ultimately earn their way back up to a passing score by the end of the term.

... We are falling victim to the ‘grading industrial complex’ of online gradebook programs.

In Pittsburgh, Derek Long is mostly giving students feedback on their work, rather than sweating formal grades. He’s encouraging students to advocate for themselves and let him know if they have a tech issue or other obstacle preventing them from attending—as they would in a real job—so he can find another way for them access to the material.

“If you are logging in and you are trying, there is no doubt in my mind you will get an A, or at least a B,” he said.

In Jefferson County, MacIndoe has begun using a technique borrowed from an International Baccalaureate course to gauge students’ knowledge: the oral interview. For students who haven’t turned in their written essays on a novel, he will ask them a series of semi-structured questions to gauge their analytical thinking about the text.

One thing he’s not going to do: give them an “M” for a missing grade, which the online gradebook automatically converts to a zero.

In upstate New York, Holden plans to base his scores on daily classroom tasks, but he’ll forgo grading major unit projects or tests. There’s just too much variability in which segments of the curriculum students were able to access—and it’s not fair to test them on topics they haven’t had an opportunity to learn, he said.

“It just seems almost cruel to do some big thing like, ‘Remember last Thursday we talked about this?’” Because there are some kids who say, ‘Yeah; I had tech problems, and I only heard every third word.’”

Some Districts are Planning Help—and Shift in Grading Practices May Be Permanent

In districts where a significant portion of students are struggling, leaders are already trying to plan how to help them catch up.

Thompson, the St. Paul principal, said his staff has reassigned assistant principals and behavioral specialists to head a system for tracking down students who aren’t attending remote learning. So far, he estimates it has resolved about 30 percent of cases of chronic absenteeism.

The school is also assigning graduation mentors to check in with seniors with low grades twice weekly to make sure they’re on track to graduate.

Some of the city’s efforts, including in-person academic support centers and Saturday “senior blitzes,” have been hampered by the surge in COVID-19 cases. (As of this writing, community spread of COVID-19 there has far exceeded any health organization’s guidelines for in-person learning.)

While grading challenges are likely to persist for months, they could give way to a more widespread understanding of inequitable grading practices—and possibly permanent changes in the future.

Holden, for one, said his pandemic teaching experience has changed his mind about some of his former lines in the sand.

Before the pandemic, he said, he gave students few chances to make up or redo work. But as he loosened up those practices during COVID-19, he didn’t get the slapdash work he expected, or a wave of do-overs from procrastinators. Instead, he got good-faith efforts from students would have turned in their assignments but faced legitimate problems filing them.

And he’s getting more comfortable having students text him during off hours and working one-on-one with them during virtual office hours.

“All of that is stuff I didn’t do last year, and all of it is due to COVID, and all of it is probably going to stay because it’s actually gone pretty well,” he said.

On one core insight, the teachers agree: Remote learning coupled with the trauma of the pandemic is burning out many students—and improving virtual school should be a priority for districts.

“One thing we can do is make online teaching at home better and less brain-draining and less sad. If we did that, it wouldn’t stink the way it does for a lot of kids, and they would be more engaged,” MacIndoe said.

Lee described running into one of her best students from last year, during the brief period that her district used a hybrid teaching plan.

“He’s a sophomore now; a great student, top 10, with great family support. And, you know, talking to him changed my entire perspective,” she said. “I thought everything was going well [for him]. And he said, ‘This is very hard. They expect us to do so much. I cannot do all of this work.’”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This Year?

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