Berkeley High student Martha Martin doing her math homework at home in bed in August 2020. Many Berkeley High students have seen their grades improve during the pandemic, but Ds and Fs are on the rise. File photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

The pandemic and distance learning have had polarizing effects on student achievement, causing a rise in As, Ds and Fs among Berkeley’s middle and high school students. Cs are flat and Bs are in steep decline.

Districts nationwide are reporting more students failing classes. In Berkeley, the average number of Fs per student rose 80% during the fall semester. In fall 2019, there was one F for every 10 high school students. This past fall, there was close to one F for every five high school students. 

High school students failed more classes across all demographic categories, but the rise in Fs was by far the smallest among white students. English learners saw the largest spike in failing grades. In fall 2019, one in every five English learners had an F in the gradebook. In fall 2020, nearly one in two English learners did. English learners also saw the largest spike in average number of Ds.

At the same time, Fs remain relatively rare: In fall 2020, over half the grades issued to middle and high school students were As, whereas fewer than one in five high school students had an F. This fall, the average GPA at Berkeley High actually rose slightly. That’s because the number of As rose across all demographic categories, with low-income students seeing the biggest boost in top grades. The average Berkeley middle and high school student earned an A in 3.45 of their six classes, up from 3.29 in fall 2019. Low-income students earned an A in 2.1 of their classes, up from 1.5. 

The data in this story is based on the combined fall semester grades of BUSD middle and high school students. For the purposes of comparison, the district converted middle school number grades to letter grades. However, middle school students don’t have an F equivalent, so the average number of Fs is for high school students only. It is otherwise impossible from the district’s data to distinguish between middle and high school grades. There’s also no way to tell from the data whether a small number of students saw their grades change drastically, or whether many students saw slight differences. In a Public Records Act request filed in February, Berkeleyside requested three years of grade data but only two were provided. 

How the pandemic has impacted student achievement is complex, and grades reveal only a limited picture. The past year has hit families differently. Some students have taken to distance learning, earning better grades than ever, while other students have fallen behind, differences that can transcend lines of race and class. The rise in As for low-income students shows that many have been able to succeed during pandemic.

Still, academic achievement, including grades, has long been correlated with family income and race. Before the pandemic, white students had the fewest Fs of any racial group, and after the pandemic, they saw the number of Fs rise the least. When it comes to failing grades, the pandemic seems to be exacerbating some existing disparities. 

“That’s extremely disappointing,” said Laura Babitt, a school board director who spent the past year participating in conversations with families and principals about how to best address academic disparities for Black students. “We can’t go back five days a week full time as if nothing happened. We need to be intentional about addressing learning loss. We need to focus on culturally responsive practices in our teaching and concentrated tutoring.”  

Students may be earning more Ds and Fs grades if they have been struggling with motivation and mental health, juggling a job on top of school work, or have a home environment that’s not conducive to learning, parents and teachers say. And poor grades can be stigmatizing, said Pat Reilly, the mother of two high school students, citing the “anxiety level of not succeeding on academic subjects” like math and science. 

Sometimes even Fs don’t reflect how far behind students have fallen. Genevieve Mage, who teaches religion and yearbook, said she has about the same number of students failing her class, but those who are failing, have turned in fewer assignments than in prior years. Partway through the semester, failing students are earning grades as low as 15%, compared with scores like 50s before the pandemic, she said.

“When kids see even a hint of being close to failure, some just drop off and we don’t see them again,” Mage said. “They get discouraged and it can be easier to not show up,” said Jessie Luxford, founder of Bridge, a college-preparation program that serves 125 primarily Black and Latino students, said some students who fail get discouraged.

But the rise in As is something to celebrate, too. Winta Tesfaldet, a 10th grader, saw her grades rise from Cs and Ds to almost all As. She found it easier to focus without distractions from classmates and realized she loves learning at her own pace. “Now that I know that I have this potential, I think I can get the same grades next year,” Tesfaldet said.

Some students found the workload more manageable during distance learning. Talulla Miller-Ross, a junior at Berkeley High, used to get home late every day from swimming and water polo, leaving little time for homework. This year, she has had ample time to complete assignments and became a straight-A student for the first time. 

Still, Miller-Ross knows that grades do not necessarily reflect a student’s effort or abilities. “Grades are an important metric for me, but I think it depends on privilege. For people that don’t have the optimal conditions, it shouldn’t be counted against them if they haven’t done well,” said Miller-Ross. 

And with class time cut down drastically this year, grades do not reflect how much students have learned. While it is up to individual teachers to determine their own grading policies, the district has urged teachers to be understanding of difficult circumstances brought on by the pandemic, Mage said.

“Grades are a whole different thing than where their skill levels are,” Adrianna Beti, executive director of RISE, which partners with Berkeley Unified to provide academic support, enrichment and community for 100 students at the high school. Beti explained that her students’ math skills are behind what she would expect in a typical year, but their grades aren’t uniformly lower.

One parent told Berkeleyside that his daughter, a sixth-grader at King Middle School, fell two grade levels behind in reading this year, but she is earning the same 3s and 4s — the equivalent of Bs and As — that she had before. 

Programs like RISE and Bridge offer addition academic support. During distance learning, over half of Bridge students received one-on-one tutoring in math and science from college students at UC Berkeley. Some students received up to five hours of tutoring each week.

With even more students from marginalized backgrounds earning failing grades, the pandemic has called into question what an equitable grading policy looks like. “When you’re grading a kid on resources, you’re giving kids with more privileges, higher grades,” Mage said. She is considering implementing grading policies she considers more equitable, including lenient late penalties and opportunities for retakes or test corrections.

“When you look at the big picture, what the hell are grades?” asked social studies teacher Alex Day, who wishes he had the time to write humanizing, detailed letters of recommendation for each of his students instead of assigning them letter grades.

Across the board, many agree that, with the grief and emotional trauma caused by the pandemic, grades invariably should take a backseat. Recognizing that mental health has to come first, Beti has used class time to allow students to connect with their counselors, even if it means missing a lesson or two. 

“There’s been a loss” in how much students have learned, Beti said, but students’ mental health concerns her more. “If you are not stable enough to keep your life, your math level does not matter,” Beti said.

Whether the grades show it or not, educators like Beti recognize that students have not been able to learn as much as they would in a typical year. To address this loss, the district is planning to devote state and federal COVID-19 funds for additional support, which could include expanding summer school offerings, tutoring or additional programming during the year, though the actual plans have yet to be finalized. 

For her part, Beti is applying for district funding for a math catch-up program and a therapeutic writing program, hoping to combine academic skill-building with emotional support.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...