Loosened grading standards — including the elimination of middle school F’s — likely allowed the Madison School District to avoid meting out more failing grades to students during online-only learning, even as the number of chronically absent students increased.
Dane County’s largest and most diverse district distributed 4,515 failing grades at the high school level in the 2019 fall semester, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 3,920 in the fall semester of 2020, when learning was fully online. Those figures translate to 9.6% and 8.6% of all grades given out at Madison’s four traditional high schools.
At the middle school level, 3,608 failing grades, or 4.4% of the total, were assigned in the fall semester of 2019, but there were less than 60 for the fall semester of 2020, likely the result of grading mistakes or other special cases.
The smaller number of F’s stands in contrast to the experience of almost all of the 15 other school districts completely or predominantly within Dane County. Fourteen districts saw more failing grades once instruction went online; only the McFarland district saw fewer failing grades in fall 2020 than in fall 2019.
Meanwhile, the percentage of students considered “chronically absent” — meaning they missed 16% or more of school days — in the Madison district increased from 21% to 27% of high schoolers from fall 2019 to fall 2020, and from 11% to 22% at the middle school level.
The increase came despite looser online school attendance standards under which students could be marked present simply by exchanging messages with “the homeroom teacher and any specials teacher they are scheduled to receive instruction from that day.” Madison is one of eight school districts in Wisconsin with state waivers from enforcing state attendance laws this school year. Three others are also in Dane County: Sun Prairie, Mount Horeb and Middleton-Cross Plains.
Countywide, figures for absenteeism were mixed, with four districts reporting increases in chronic absenteeism at some schools and others either reporting similar or lower figures than before the pandemic.
Madison was not alone in loosening attendance standards in response to the pandemic, but some other districts didn’t and some schools even found that attendance increased, perhaps because it was easier to log onto a computer in the morning than to get up, get dressed and get out the door to in-person school.
‘No pass’ replaces F
When classrooms nationwide shut down to in-person learning in March 2020, the Madison district took steps to ensure the sudden change didn’t penalize students during the final three months of the 2019-20 school year, including by freezing grade point averages and shifting to a pass/fail grading system in the high schools.
District spokesperson Liz Merfeld also said the district removed F’s from its middle school reporting scale, “knowing that many students were experiencing significant barriers as we moved to virtual learning.”
That dispensation continued into the current school year and was joined by others, either in response to the pandemic or as part of the district’s ongoing efforts to close racial achievement gaps and create more “equity.”
Specifically, final exams for most students were canceled for the fall 2020 semester; teachers were instead to “prioritize meeting with students who are failing or near failure during (final exam) week,” according to a Dec. 7 message from the district to families.
Failing a class in high school also will not result in an F on a student’s report card this school year. Instead it’s an “NP,” for “no pass,” and while the student doesn’t receive credit for an NP course, the NP is not factored into the student’s GPA.
In August, the district also implemented a permanent grading change at the high schools that dictates no assignment gets a score of less than 50%, even ones that aren’t turned in. The idea is to avoid overly penalizing students who missed some assignments but proved through others that they understood the material.
Merfeld said eliminating F’s at the middle school level is “not necessarily permanent,” and a district work group is currently considering the “future” of middle school grading.
Superintendent Carlton Jenkins and the district’s seven board members did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement, district spokesperson Tim LeMonds denied that the district had loosened grading standards, or that it had done so to boost student grades.
“The rigorous expectations teachers hold for students to demonstrate their learning has not changed,” he said. “We believe in a growth mindset ... (and) we want students to engage in productive struggle and persevere through difficulties. Given the unique and extreme circumstances students have faced during virtual learning, the district believes it is paramount to let empathy and understanding drive the decisions we make in how we support students.”
LeMonds also said the district knows how some students, “especially during a pandemic ... can have brief, momentary struggles (for example, at the beginning of the school year), that would make it mathematically impossible to pass a course, even if they re-engaged and demonstrated the required skills and knowledge. Our approach recognizes this very real situation that could harm a student’s future coursework and experience trajectory.”
The extent to which other districts have taken a grading approach similar to Madison’s during the pandemic is unclear.
“I do not believe it has been common practice for districts to set grading floors or prohibit failing grades,” said Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.
He said there is likely “huge variability” in how districts went about re-imagining instruction and assessment given the constraints imposed by the pandemic.
Diana Hess, dean of the UW-Madison School of Education and a professor of curriculum and instruction, said she wasn’t aware of any comprehensive surveying or research on the issue.
“Generally, I am hearing that there was a lot of flexibility throughout the year — not necessarily standards lowering, but more options for students to meet standards in various ways,” she said.
Michael Apple, also a UW-Madison professor of curriculum and instruction, agreed with that assessment, adding that “even with some districts having supposedly moved to ‘loosen standards,’ the reasons for doing this are often quite diverse depending on the political pressures from conservative and or progressive movements.”
Sun Prairie’s experience
Madison is the last of the 16 Dane County school districts to release data in response to a Wisconsin State Journal public records request made in February that was aimed at determining how the switch to online-only learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected student attendance and achievement.
The Sun Prairie district, Dane County’s second-largest with about 8,400 students, also released data on grades and absenteeism last month that were more in line with what other districts have been seeing.
Chronic absenteeism rates for grades eight through 12 increased from last school year to this school year, going from 15% to 22%, and each of those grades saw an increase in the number of F’s given out, going from 1,197 total in fall 2019 to 1,597 in fall 2020, a 33% increase.
Madison is also the last of the 16 districts to return its middle and high schoolers to in-person learning, and many private and religious schools have been fully in-person since the fall. Public Health Madison and Dane County reports that as of Thursday, it knows of no COVID-19-related deaths or hospitalizations linked to in-person learning in the county.
Madison sixth-graders whose families opted for a return to in-person learning began two full days of instruction per week on April 21; seventh and eighth grades wanting in-person returned April 28. Half of high-schoolers whose families wanted them to go back returned beginning April 21 for two half-days per week; the rest returned April 28.
A growing body of research suggests that lower-income students and students of color have suffered the most academically during online-only learning.