More students than ever got F’s in first term of 2020-21 school year — but are A-F grades fair in a pandemic?


To be sure, many adults are having a hard time staying focused on their work amid the health and political chaos of 2020, so why would anybody expect young people to be any better?

And is it fair to give kids regular A-F grades when nothing has been regular about the way they are living and learning since last March, and won’t be for some time?

Last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic began and schools across the United States closed and reverted to remote learning — literally overnight — many districts decided to halt giving A-F grades and institute some form of pass-fail system.

School and district officials said then that giving A-F grades wouldn’t be fair because of the inadequacy of remote learning at the time and because many students did not have sufficient technology and/or Internet access, and/or a quiet, safe place to learn at home, and/or no resources to help with their school work. Before the pandemic, millions of children attended poorly funded schools and lived in poverty, but the pandemic exacerbated the inequities.

When the 2020-21 academic year began this fall, A-F grading systems returned even though many students were still learning from home. Now there are news stories from across the country about a tsunami of F’s:

In Maryland: Failure rates in math and English jumped as much as sixfold for some of the most vulnerable students in Montgomery County, the largest system in the state. — The Washington Post

In Texas: Students across the greater Houston metropolitan area got F’s at unprecedented rates, with some districts reporting nearly half of middle and high school students failing in at least one class. — The Houston Chronicle

In North Carolina: Forty-six percent of students in grades 3-12 in Wilson County Schools failed at least one class — more than double the rate from the same period in fall 2019. — Associated Press

In Virginia: Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, reported that the percentage of middle school and high school students who earned F’s in at least two classes jumped from 6 percent to 11 percent. — The Washington Post

In California: Districts around the San Francisco Bay area reported spikes in failing grades. The Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City said the percentage of students with more than one failing grade jumped from 19.7 percent last year at the same time to 29 percent. F’s in Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County jumped from 19 percent over the previous two fall terms to 30.7 percent. — The Mercury News

When the 2020-21 school year started, fears that millions of students were falling badly behind in their school work had escalated, and administrators and teachers believed that students would try harder if they had to achieve a specific grade rather than just pass a class. They also said that remote learning had improved a lot from the spring and the academic programming was more substantial. And they said there is no systemic substitute right now for the traditional grading system.

In addition, high school students worried about how colleges and universities would view an entire academic year of pass-fail grades. Institutions of higher education had told students not to worry about their grades last spring but that changed in the fall. The University of California and California State University systems said, for example, that they would not accept pass/fail or similar marks for 2020-21 on applicants’ transcripts next year.

So A-F grades reappeared, but in a nod to the unique pandemic circumstances and continued inequities that make it harder for some students to work from home, many districts and schools have given some flexibility to students.

For example, in Newman, Calif., the school board of the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District voted last month to temporarily ease the grading policy. Teachers can’t give a zero to students who don’t turn in assignments; now the lowest score on all assignments is 50 points on a scale of 100 — and the policy is retroactive to the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Some teachers spoke against the policy, citing an argument made by educators around the country: Pass/fail systems are a disincentive for students to try hard for a good grade and they work against those students who work their hardest.

WestSideConnect.com reported that Scott Felber, a teacher at Orestimba High School in Newman-Crows Landing, wrote a letter to the board saying: “What will happen to a student who gives everything they have to squeak by with a passing grade when they watch their friends do minimal work and get the same grade?”

Nearly 20 Yolo Middle School teachers said in a letter that giving students half-credit for incomplete assignments “is not preparing them for life,” WestSideConnect.com reported.

Other teachers said, however, that they had already been giving 50 points for uncompleted assignments and that it had not affected the motivation of students to work hard.

Lily Villa is a 16-year-old junior who attends Mabton Junior High School in Washington state. She said that she was worried last spring that her school had turned to a pass-fail system grading system. “When we are thinking about higher education,” she said, “we are thinking about credentials, and when you have pass and fail grades, that affects your GPA and that can hurt you.”

Now, she said, she has changed her mind.

“School districts currently believe the online system is good enough to have a full letter grade format, but it’s not,” she said. “Students are worried about their mental health, their grades, their communication with teachers, being able to have Internet access, being able to have modern technology at home. And that type of letter-grade system just makes things worse, and brings students more to worry about.”

The effect of pass-fail systems on GPAs was a concern in Massachusetts, where a joint committee on grades for Newton South High School and Newton North High School agreed over the summer that teachers would give A-F grades this year but that the results would not factor into a cumulative GPA.

Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said the issue is complicated.

“Ideally, teachers should provide feedback in narrative form so that students receive detailed comments on how they have done and where improvement may be needed,” he said. “This is a lot of work for teachers so it may not be possible in many cases. For students who are motivated by grades, a letter grade may be helpful for encouragement. For students who are struggling, letter grades are unlikely to do much to motivate them to apply themselves.”

Justin Parmenter, a seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher in Charlotte, N.C., said he opposes the use of A-F grades right now.

“I think A-F grades are questionable even during non-pandemic times but absolutely pointless right now,” he said. “When a student’s ability to access instruction depends on what kind of Internet signal they have, it’s a huge equity issue. Add to that the fact that these conditions make it very difficult for us to provide the kind of individualized instruction that our students need (and in some cases, legally require) and so many other reasons. This is just not the time for it.”

Jessyca Matthews, a high school English teacher in Flint, Mich., said: “If I had a choice, this year would have been a growth year. No grades, but a focus on mental health, cultivation of new interest in education, and thinking of ways to reach out and uplift kids. If that could have happened, maybe even for the first semester, that would have been wonderful.

“But, even with knowing there needs to be major shifts in education, we continue to do the same oppressive behaviors, just in a virtual space,” she said.



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