Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 12
By Stephen Sawchuk
About a third of high school students in St. Paul, Minn., had a nonpassing grade at the end of the first
quarter. Similar patterns have shown
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 to demand inperson 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
Now those problems are running
headlong against the K-12 system's
creaky, inflexible, and often biased
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.
Grading Problems Worsen
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 202021 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
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.
There is not a single
student in this
country who is to
blame for COVID-19,
[yet] we know the
impact is harming
St. Paul., Minn.
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
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
12 | EDUCATION WEEK | January 13, 2021 | www.edweek.org
of those who are trying to engage
but not turning in quality work or
" 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
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
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
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 out
of 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
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. Oneon-one Zoom time helps but isn't a
" 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. "
Should Schools Be Giving So
Many Failing Grades This Year?
PANDEMIC GRADING TIPS
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 colleagues 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.
Ebony Lee, a 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
" 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 chal-
lenging, " 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
" 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 standardsbased 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'
Education Week - January 13, 2021
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - January 13, 2021
Education Week - January 13, 2021
Teachers Are Already Getting COVID-19 Vaccines
High Risk for COVID-19 And Forced Back to Class
The High-Stakes Tests Facing Miguel Cardona
Where the Nominee Stands On Key K-12 Policy Issues
With Name Changes, Schools Transform Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons
Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This Year?
Millions of ELL Students Face In-Person, Federal Testing During COVID-19
DeVos Resigns a Day After Pro-Trump Mob Storms U.S. Capitol
Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol: A Dreaded, Real-Life Lesson Facing Teachers
Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event
Civil Rights for the New Administration
We Must Talk About Remote Student Absenteeism
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
Empty Promises Of Equity
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Education Week - January 13, 2021
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 2
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 4
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Teachers Are Already Getting COVID-19 Vaccines
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - High Risk for COVID-19 And Forced Back to Class
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 7
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Where the Nominee Stands On Key K-12 Policy Issues
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 9
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - With Name Changes, Schools Transform Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 11
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This Year?
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 13
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Millions of ELL Students Face In-Person, Federal Testing During COVID-19
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - DeVos Resigns a Day After Pro-Trump Mob Storms U.S. Capitol
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol: A Dreaded, Real-Life Lesson Facing Teachers
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Civil Rights for the New Administration
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - We Must Talk About Remote Student Absenteeism
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 21
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 22
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Empty Promises Of Equity