This piece was also published in a slightly different form in the Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal

None of us need reminding that we have been experiencing — and are still experiencing — the worst pandemic in over 100 years. We are dealing with circumstances in our work, school, and personal lives that we never imagined. As a result, many of us have been allowed some lessening of external accountability. Some jobs are easing off or canceling performance evaluations. School districts and state education systems are not rating schools on their performance. The one group which is still being held accountable is made up of the people who should be given the most consideration…and those are our young people. Our students. 

Most districts continue to give grades — even failing grades — during the pandemic. Even though students have had to attend classes primarily online for the past year. Even though, as we have seen, many others are being given leeway. Even though the research shows that failure is a massive demotivator, especially for those who are not yet adults. 

Some argue that if we eliminate failing grades, our high school students will not learn to face reality. They say that our students will learn that they will be given rewards without doing the work. But failing grades also communicate a value. And students definitely receive a message from them. What they learn is: “School is not a place for me. I’m not someone who belongs in or can do well in school.”

In the past, this meant that failing grades drastically increased the likelihood of students dropping out. Research from the UChicago Consortium on School Research has found that freshman students who fail two classes are three and a half times less likely to graduate than those who pass. And in a pandemic — who knows? The likelihood of dropping out can only increase when a student has barely been in person at their school.

And this disconnection is exacerbated for Black and Latinx students, with whom our schools already struggle to connect. We must consider that these students have been facing both the pandemic and heightened racial trauma over the past year, with the public police killings of unarmed Black and Latinx people as well as the pandemic’s increased impacts on their own communities.

For all these reasons, schools should eliminate failing grades for this year of school. At an administrative level, schools could change all grades of D and F to a grade of P, which would award course credit but would not count toward a student’s grade point average. At an individual level, teachers could look at all what their students have gone through in the past year and just decide that none of their students should earn an F.

This is the time to stop talking about equity and be about equity. This is the time to act. School boards, administrators, teachers — please, don’t fail our students. 

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