The Dangers of Failing Grades

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Education Briefing

Districts are trying to figure out what to do with students who fell behind this year.

Kate TaylorAmelia Nierenberg

June 23, 2021

This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important news in American education. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Today: A rash of failing grades could have long-term consequences for students, and the Supreme Court’s N.C.A.A. ruling could pave the way for more change to come.


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Credit...Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Students across the country failed courses at alarming rates during the coronavirus pandemic. In Houston, about half of high school students got at least one F in the fall 2020 semester, compared with 35 percent the year before. In Dallas, five high schools had more than a quarter of students failing two or more courses this spring, up from just one school two years ago. And in Chicago, a recent story by WBEZ described teachers at high-poverty high schools agonizing about whether to fail students.

The increase in failing grades is one of the clearest signs of how the pandemic has affected students’ education. Experts are particularly concerned about the impact on high school students, who don’t have much time left in their academic careers to make up for learning losses.

“One year of bad grades can change the life trajectory of a high school student,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and advocacy group at the University of Washington Bothell.

“Just as important,” she added, “a failing grade means the student did not master the course content and will likely struggle for coming years without a lot of extra support.”

How to deal with failing grades during the pandemic has been a matter of debate. Boston Public Schools stopped tying marks to attendance, and some schools stopped giving F’s, issuing “incompletes” instead and offering students the opportunity to make up work.

Even so, the failure rate in core courses among Boston middle- and high school students ticked up.

Experts worry that if schools don’t take major steps to re-engage struggling students, helping them make up credits and restoring their confidence, the surge this year in failing grades could lead many to drop out of school, or dim their chances of getting into a selective college.

Research has shown that getting one or two F’s in ninth grade significantly decreases a student’s chance of graduating.

Ms. Lake said it was critical that districts give students the opportunity to retake classes or improve their grades this summer or next year.

Many people have blamed failure rates on the challenges of remote learning, but students most likely struggled during the pandemic for many reasons, among them financial stress and physical and mental health issues.

In Houston, for example, where schools reopened on Oct. 19 but 60 percent of students stayed remote, the high school students who remained online did somewhat better overall than the students who returned in person, according to district data (although that was not the case for students in grades 3-8).

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package included $129 billion for K-12 education, aimed at getting students back to school and making up the losses of the past year and a half. Districts now have to figure out how to use that aid to help high school students get back on track, and convince those whose confidence has faltered that they can succeed in school.


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Credit...Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled that the N.C.A.A. cannot ban relatively modest, education-related payments to student-athletes. Thanks in part to television rights deals, college sports generate huge revenues for universities and coaches, but not for the people who actually play the games.

“The N.C.A.A.’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a blistering opinion, characterizing the N.C.A.A.’s policy as a textbook case of price-fixing, antitrust behavior.

Our colleague Billy Witz wrote in an analysis that the decision “provided a number of victories for those who argue that the billion-dollar industry should be dismantled.”

Online, college athletes rejoiced. “Another great step in the right direction!!!” Jordan Bohannon, a basketball player at the University of Iowa, wrote on Twitter. “#NotNCAAProperty.”

More change may soon come. The court’s logic signals that it might be open to a head-on challenge to the N.C.A.A.’s ban on allowing college athletes to earn money off their names, images and likenesses.

“To a certain extent, the Supreme Court ruling is a bit of a sideshow,” Alan Blinder, who covers college sports for The Times, told The Morning newsletter. “The real change that’s going to affect most athletes playing now is coming a week from Thursday.”

That’s when laws in at least six states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas — will go into effect, allowing players to do things like make endorsements or monetize their social media presences.


  • Some international students may need to quarantine or be revaccinated when they return to college.

  • Russia declared Bard College an “undesirable” organization, imperiling anyone in the country affiliated with the school.

  • Sang Ho Baek, a 20-year-old college baseball player at George Mason University, died from complications that followed a routine joint surgery.

  • Dartmouth is offering students a chance at cash to move off campus and ease demand for on-campus housing.

  • Students at Indiana University are suing the school over its Covid-19 vaccine requirement.

  • George Clooney and other celebrities are starting a public high school in Los Angeles to train teenagers for jobs in Hollywood.

  • The Education Department said that discrimination against transgender students was prohibited, threatening laws in at least 31 states.

  • Cicadas are giving some students hands-on experience with science after a tough year.

  • Our colleague Dana Goldstein profiled Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University. Her unwavering conviction during the pandemic that data proved schools were safe made her a hero to some and a lightning rod to others.

  • And Kate wrote about how the pandemic affected a third-grade class in Salem, Mass.

  • A good read from The Times: In an essay for Modern Love, a father worries that beloved children’s books give his daughter false promises about the natural world. “Will we have fewer snowy days going forward, and fewer ducklings to make way for?” he wonders.

  • And a good look: Check out these beautiful portraits of gay fathers.


Questions about vaccine status are hard. It’s even harder in a power dynamic, like when an adult is interacting with students.

One person, who wrote in to The Times, runs a group at a college where only one student received a religious exemption from the vaccine. (The college otherwise requires a Covid-19 shot.)

Group meetings are vital, this person said, and Zoom is not a good substitute. But several people are not comfortable gathering with someone who is unvaccinated.

“How can we have group functions and not exclude an unvaccinated person?” they wondered.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, who writes about ethics for The Times, replied. The vaccinated majority do not need to make changes that pose a serious and otherwise unnecessary burden, he writes.

“People are free to refuse vaccination for religious reasons,” Kwame writes, “but they may have to deal with the consequence.”

And an unrelated piece of advice: If your kid is being bullied, it’s OK to acknowledge it.

“Start with something simple, like: ‘Did you hear what that kid said when we walked in? That was really mean,’” suggested Philip Galanes, who writes about thorny social situations for The Times.

“Then stop,” he continued, addressing a worried reader. “Your son will let you know, in words or body language, if he wants to discuss it.”

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