The Impact of Grades During a Pandemic

We are seeing an educational pandemic in the form of alarmingly high student failure rates.

Here is what we know, from research as well as fifteen years of school improvement work: when we give a 9th grader an F, the message they receive is that they don’t belong in their new school and that their teachers don’t care about them. Each failure impacts their long-term academic outcomes, making it less likely for them to graduate from high school. We know that failing grades have similar effects on older students as well.

We have to seriously consider the harm we will do by failing students during a pandemic. They are navigating adolescence, which is always challenging, and now they are doing so while managing social isolation, grief, and constant acts of overt racism and racial violence by perpetrators who are rarely held accountable.

We see all of you, teachers, counselors, and principals, in our schools working hard in the midst of homeschooling your own children, caring for elders, and grieving losses of loved ones. We know you are striving valiantly to support students. We see and celebrate these practices:

  • Teachers are supporting students to achieve high grades by giving them multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned and finding innovative ways to engage them.
  • Counselors are reaching out to students to re-engage them in their classes and re-connect them to school, while also making sure their social-emotional needs are being met.
  • Principals are creating the conditions in schools so that teachers and counselors have the time and resources to support students.

Despite these critical shifts in practice, the school system is still giving a high number of Fs to students. Policymakers, you could support this good work by making semester one grades NOT final grades. This would allow students extra time to make up work, learn material, and pass their classes—or better yet, excel. Providing additional time to meet standards is a reasonable accommodation during a pandemic.

We applaud the efforts we see to engage and teach students despite the incredible challenges we face. We ask you to build on these practices to support students to overcome hardship. Let’s not fail our young people.

January 22, 2021