From the Field

The Far-Reaching Consequences of the Surge in Failing Grades

Recent news accounts report sharp increases in students receiving failing grades during the pandemic, as well as an emphasis among some teachers on “grace over grades.” These trends have far-reaching consequences for keeping students on track for high school graduation and college enrollment. FutureEd Research Associate Vasilisa Smith interviewed Jim Schwartz, head leadership coach for the Network for College Success in Chicago, about the current grading landscape and its impact on student confidence and college-going. 

What does the current grading landscape look like? What have you been hearing from teachers and students?

At least in Chicago, it’s primarily the A to F system, 0 to 100 grading scale that many of us grew up with. And consequently, every school has a very high number of students who are failing because attendance is lower during the pandemic. But I also see some schools saying, “We’re going to count homework less, or we’re not going to give homework or use a homework category in our grades.”

What are the implications for students of an increase in failing grades?

In some ways the answer is we just don’t know because we haven’t been in this situation before.  But research indicates that failing grades increase students’ risk of dropping out. Our partner organization that we work with, the UChicago Consortium on School Research, has done a lot of that research and found that high school freshmen who fail more than one core class are more than three times less likely to graduate from high school. 

There’s a lot of research that indicates that the message ninth-graders receive when they get an F is that school isn’t for them, that their teachers don’t care about them. And each failing grade makes it less likely for them to graduate. This is especially true for Black and Latinx students, especially during the pandemic because they have been hit hardest by COVID.

What would be the consequence of having pass-fail grades or simply not failing students? 

I think that making allowances or grading with grace or having systems that don’t make failure the same kind of penalty would potentially be beneficial to students. For me, educational equity for students means we shouldn’t be giving them failing grades right now. 

Are there other ways that an uptick in failing grades could impact a student’s achievement and outcome?

Students who have lower grades are going to be less likely to seek out and gain access to more challenging coursework and other opportunities during their high school careers, such as Advanced Placement or IB programs. That’s bound up with their attitudes about themselves. Students’ attitudes about themselves as students, their beliefs that they can achieve in more advanced programs in high school, and that they can succeed in college are connected to each other. 

We’ve already seen a decrease in college applications as a result of the pandemic. Do you think that an increase in failing grades could deter even more students from applying to college?

That’s a potential outcome. Both if a student doesn’t graduate from high school then, of course, they’re not going to apply to college. But also, I think there’s a depression of grades at the higher end of the scale. Students who used to be earning As and Bs and are now earning Bs and Cs or Cs and Ds. A possible outcome of that is that fewer students apply to college, especially students of color. 

What should colleges do now that they have a year and a half worth of soft grades? Should they reassess how they evaluate student performance?

Colleges should continue to use grades. The research has shown that they’re more predictive of college performance than standardized test scores and other factors. But if I could wave a magic wand on counsel college admissions offices,  I would encourage them to look at students who have lower grades than they typically consider and adjust the admissions thresholds they’re setting. If you have the goal as a college or university of admitting more low-income students or more students of color, then you might have to shift your grading metrics. And if you don’t, the result could very easily be an increase in the affluence of admitted students and fewer admissions among students of color.

How should policymakers navigate this grading landscape?

I think that there should be a big focus on avoiding failing grades whenever possible, allowing students to continue to work to earn a higher grade of some kind and credit for a class. There’s one example of a district shifting failing grades to a designation that indicated no credit but no impact on GPA. And students had a period of time in which they could bring that grade up to a credit-bearing grade. That’s one innovative strategy for working within the traditional grading framework, but in a way that gives some grace, that acknowledges the difficult circumstances that many students are facing.

Another approach is to create a policy that allows students to complete work and move up a failing grade from the first semester during the second semester. But that requires a willingness among teachers to encourage students to put in the extra work in the second semester. If it’s just a policy shift and teachers aren’t on board with it, then it’s really not going to make that much of a difference.  

Schools should also really lean into project-based learning. Even just trying a really innovative project that’s connected to student interest and that has a real-world impact. They would help motivate students. And if you think about grading those projects, they would allow multiple opportunities for students to be successful. That could have a big impact on students’ grades over the course of a semester. 

Are there any solutions you hope to see stick around post-pandemic?

Project-based learning and, within project-based learning, grading based on competency are strategies that could be beneficial longer-term in addition to helping right now.  Thinking about, “What are the skills that we really want students to master in this course, in this unit?” and then assessing students based on those skills. 

Can this competency-based approach lead to more equitable grading systems, especially for the most vulnerable students?

Those systems would be beneficial for all students, especially as we move into the systems like competency-based grading. They’re more aligned with how people learn in general and not as prescriptive or competitive to fit into a particular box.

In our system the students who don’t feel as much a part of school are Black students, Latinx students. And school isn’t made to be a place where they can be connected or where they can grow. Those innovative grading systems, competency-based grading and project-based learning, can help those students feel more connected to school by encouraging a growth mindset and consequently, help motivate students to bring their grades up. Students can begin to view assessments as something that they can improve on rather than something that tells them that they’re not good at school.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.