Semester 1 Grades Update: Who’s right, who’s wrong on the numbers?

Last night, at the January board of education meeting, a district staff member, Dr. Lopez, gave a presentation on “teaching and learning.”  To address the question of how students are faring in the remote learning environment, he presented a chart showing very modest drop-offs in course pass rates, namely, the following (obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request):

Pass rates, from D214 presentation 1/21/2021

What are parents worried about?  These are small changes.  No big deal!

But, of course, this is deceptive.  Setting the scale starting from 0 is a strategy to minimize the differences being shown.

Here’s (more or less) the same data, presented somewhat differently, based on a FOIA request.

Pass Rates comparison, own calculation based on FOIA data

And here’s the same data, flipped and shown as the rate of failures (including Incompletes, Withdrawals, and similar non-passing grades),

Course fail rates, fall semester

Which makes it far clearer that there have been substantial increases in failures from last to this year.

What’s more, the number of students affected is not a trivial number, and varies considerably by school.  I do not have data on the degree to which students already struggling, are doing even worse, e.g., students who would ordinarily have 1 F having 3 instead, vs. many more students having Fs who had not in the past.  All I have are counts per school, for last vs. this year:

Count of F and other non-passing grades, Fall 2020.

This is not entirely apples to apples as it’s not adjusted for changes in the number of students from year to year, but it’s still important to view, in order to translate percentages into student counts.

At the same time as Fs and F-equivalents increased, so too did the P, or “Pass” grade, used, it seems, primarily to prevent poor performance from affecting a student’s GPA, college applications, and scholarship chances.  Anecdotally, this was at the discretion of the principal at each school, and it shows in the  following graph.

P grades, Fall 2020 and 2019.

And while this was beneficial to students whose grades were sinking below their usual higher marks (my own son reports that this was the case for several of his friends, ordinarily straight-A students), it also helps the district mask problems and avoid parent complaints.  Reportedly, at Wheeling High School, an offer to turn low grades into Ps was extended to all students; in other cases, students discovered unexpectedly that their low grades had been converted into Ps.

And, finally, at the other end of the spectrum, the number of As given out climbed considerably.

A grades, Fall 2020 and 2019.

Why would that be?

A defender of remote learning might take these grades at face value and deem them evidence of exceptional student success.  But the word-of-mouth explanation is quite different:  that expectations had been lowered considerably and that student cheating has climbed considerably (or that, with an objective of not disadvantaging students who choose not to cheat, “collaboration” and “open book” tests have been made the new norm with no changes in what’s being tested).

As to the failure rates, exactly how to interpret these grades is also tricky, knowing that staff worked intensively with students at risk of failure, with extended incompletes and other efforts to remedy coursework that in any other circumstance would have produced that F.  What would these grades have looked like absent these interventions?  Did these interventions go beyond merely tutoring and other assistance, to a lowering of standards that meant that students were passed despite an objectively insufficient understanding of course material?

What’s more, at the board meeting, during the question-and-answer portion of Dr. Lopez’s presentation, Board President Dan Petro attempted to minimize the degree of concern about these grades.  He latched onto an example Lopez cited of a student listening to class lectures with ear buds while at work, to say, “it’s not the remote learning that’s a problem, but the economic problems families are having due to Covid, isn’t it?  We can’t help it if students have to work to support their families.”  He also said, “we have students that have Ds and Fs every year, right?” and tried to suggest that the raw numbers of students failing classes in e-learning who hadn’t before, was very small, only several dozen.  (The recording isn’t yet available on the website so I am relying on my notes.)

But the detail Lopez provided with respect to the interventions now being attempted certainly belies efforts to sugarcoat the problems.   And if, as Petro suggested, students’ failing grades where wholly unrelated to the remote learning for nearly the whole of the semester, then it would hardly make sense for the very first “academic intervention” listed in the presentation, to be the individual invitation for in-person instruction.

One final comment:  it was indeed gratifying to hear that the staff was putting in substantial efforts to work with students who were struggling academically or in terms of mental health.  But here’s an analogy suggested by a friend:

To mandate remote learning, and then pull together all manner of assistance for students who develop academic or mental health problems as a result, rather than having done everything possible to prevent/minimize remote learning in the first place,

is like offering students a diet of lead paint chips, then jumping in with chelation therapy afterwards, rather than offering nutritious, or at least non-poisonous food in the first place.

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