Schools Face More Failing Grades During Pandemic

15 December 2020

School districts across the United States have reported the number of students failing classes has risen many times higher than usual numbers. English language learners, as well as disabled and poor students, are suffering the most.

Erik Jespersen is principal of McNary High School in the state of Oregon. At his school, 38 percent of grades in late October were failing, compared with 8 percent in normal times.

Educators see a number of reasons for the change. Students learning from home often miss assignments — or school completely. Internet availability is limited or not effectively established, making it difficult to complete and upload assignments. And teachers who do not see their students in person have fewer ways to note who is falling behind. That is especially true with many students keeping their cameras off during online classes.

The increase in failing grades has been seen in districts of all sizes around the country.

At Jespersen's school in the Salem-Keizer Public School district, hundreds of students at first had grade scores of 0.0 percent. This showed that students simply were not taking part in school at all.

In New Mexico, more than 40 percent of middle and high school students were failing at least one class as of late October. In Houston, Texas, 42 percent of students received at least one F in the first grading period of the year. A grade of F is the lowest possible letter grade a student can receive in the United States. Nearly 40 percent of grades for high school students in St. Paul, Minnesota were Fs. That is double the amount than seen in a usual year.

FILE - Students who attend Salt Lake City School District schools rally at East High School Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, urging the school board and administrators to resume in-person learning. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
FILE - Students who attend Salt Lake City School District schools rally at East High School Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, urging the school board and administrators to resume in-person learning. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Many schools have increased efforts to return to in-person learning. Other schools are changing their grading policies and giving students more time to complete assignments.

Jespersen said his school began to see grades improve after bringing groups of 300 students into the building to receive support from teachers. However, that recently stopped because of the area's rising coronavirus cases. Advisory teams have increased contact with students. Teachers have been asked to temporarily stop assigning graded homework. And parents of Hispanic students were invited to learn how they can see their children's grades online.

In Charleston, South Carolina, administrators and teachers are considering bringing back a grading system used in the spring. The system permitted instructors to give 50s instead of 0s to make it less harmful to students' grades, said eighth-grade English teacher Jody Stallings. "I'm an English teacher, not a math teacher, but I've learned zeros are very, very devastating to an average," he said.

Most of the failing grades Stallings gives out come from missing assignments, not assignments that were turned in with a lot of wrong answers. "You talk to them later and they say,`You know I just didn't do it. I didn't know the answer so I just didn't do it,'" he said.

Stallings teaches most of his students in person and the rest online at the same time at Moultrie Middle School. He added, "When you have a kid in person, he's going to take the test ... Even if he doesn't know anything, he has a chance."

In Hatch, New Mexico, high school registrar Blanca Ramirez said her job has changed during the pandemic. Now, she often serves as a translator and advisor to students and parents who speak only Spanish. In discussions with students, she asks them how they can have such low grades.

Ramirez said she thinks many students are afraid to even begin their schoolwork. "And so just making that phone call opens up that encouragement and they start making a little bit more effort," she added.

In some cases, the biggest difficulty for an English-language learning student is simply getting the necessary classwork online. A few times this school year, Ramirez has had students meet her in the school parking lot so she can show them and their parents how to use the online system.

Hatch High School reported 79 percent of students were failing at least one class during their first grading period of the year. That percentage has been reduced to 46 percent within a few months. School spokeswoman Audra Bluehouse says that is because school has been made easier and students are now more engaged.

Bluehouse says the number was high in part because the school added an eighth class to every student's schedule this fall.

Now, teachers have been instructed to give less homework. They have been urged to find different ways of teaching. Grading has been changed from a 100-point system to a 50-point system so that missed assignments with zeroes do not hurt students as much.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Carolyn Thompson reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted this story for Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.


Words in This Story

assignmentn. a job or duty that is given to someone; a task someone is required to do

devastatingadj. causing great damage or harm

encouragement n. something that makes someone more determined, hopeful, or confident

engagedadj. greatly interested

translator n. a person who changes words in one language into another