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 that 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, including OPRF District 200, 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 failure is a massive de-motivator, 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 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 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 3½ 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 impact on their own communities.

For all these reasons, the Oak Park and River Forest High School board should eliminate failing grades for this year of school. One way to do this would be to 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. The board should take this action for Semester 2 and retroactively for Semester 1. 

The D200 board has adopted a racial equity policy for the OPRF school community. This is the time to stop talking about equity and be about equity. This is the time to act. 

OPRF school board, please, don’t fail our students.

Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.

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