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Giving unearned grades on report cards hides COVID learning loss

Three and a half years ago, COVID-19 began its deadly march across the United States, shuttering schools and isolating children from their communities and their teachers. A series of recent reports have quantified the academic and mental health toll to students from the pandemic. The consensus: The “COVID-19 generation” is not ready for the demands of college or the working world, and dramatic interventions are needed.

On Wednesday, the Building Bridges Initiative, a collaboration of national education advocates across the political spectrum — including leaders of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, RedefinED Atlanta and GeorgiaCAN — issued a call to action, warning the pandemic caused learning setbacks that will stagger “our nation’s social and economic health.”

Also released on Wednesday, the “State of the American Student” report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education depicts a generation in crisis emotionally and academically. In many ways, school feels normal again, said Robin Lake, director of the nonpartisan center based at Arizona State University. “What is clear from the data, it is not. It is clear the pandemic continues to derail learning for K-12.”

While Lake’s center examined multiple pieces of data across the K-12 spectrum, its analysis delved into the challenges facing older students who have the least amount of time to rebound from the pandemic. The Georgia Milestones scores released in July show gains for younger students, but lost ground for high schoolers.

At the same time, more teens are graduating, which lessens the value of a high school diploma and leads parents to believe their children are ready for the next steps. “Graduation means less and less,” said Lake.

Emerging research shows tutoring and summer school are not reaching enough kids or advancing them fast enough, fueling calls for more intensive remedies. This summer, two researchers leading the effort to assess pandemic learning loss, Sean Reardon of Stanford and Tom Kane of Harvard, recommended a fifth year of high school where students could catch up and get career and college counseling.

Lake proposes a similar idea, but wants the extra time recast as a gap year spent at local community colleges where students can reset, get back on track and explore career and college opportunities — without the stigma of staying in high school for another year.

Even packaged as a gap year, an additional year of schooling might prove a tough sell to parents, many of whom want their teens to follow the standard pathway to college and career. Parents of first-year college students are often more worried about whether their kids get on-campus parking than whether they get college calculus. While some parents aren’t paying sufficient attention to their children’s school performance, glowing report cards are misleading others.

Keri Rodrigues, co-founder of the National Parents Union, wants more transparency in student performance, saying parents can’t trust report cards. “You cannot expect us to know things you (schools) haven’t told us,” she said. Worries over her own ninth grader’s math skills led her to private testing that revealed he was only on a fifth grade level.

“From his report card and his math teacher, I was being told he was making progress, he was getting there. There was nothing to worry about,” said Rodrigues, who lives in Massachusetts. “If your child is getting A’s or B’s, when you see that offering of tutoring, you think my kid is OK and do not sign them up. We are not being given the information we need to make informed decisions.”

A report released three weeks ago by the ACT college testing company found more students making A’s and fewer receiving B and C grades. Most alarming: Grade inflation was highest in math. Between 2010 and 2022, the ACT report found math grades rose at the same time the nation saw steep declines in math performance on tests and college readiness assessments.

The pandemic likely contributed to grade inflation. With districts shifting overnight to online instruction and students grappling with unreliable internet, schools advised teachers to extend grace in their grading. Many schools said students could not receive a grade lower than they had prior to the pandemic. Some schools forbade teachers from failing students.

Calls for kindness and grace have not subsided. Many mental health experts contend that improving children’s emotional well-being still takes precedence over closing academic gaps.

“If kids are in crisis, the mental health issues must come first,” agreed Lake, “but we do them a disservice in the long run if we let them graduate without the skills they need to be successful. We must attend to both parts of the equation. I am not asserting this will be easy but we can’t give up.”

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