L.A. Unified will not give F’s this semester and instead give students a second chance to pass

Citing pandemic hardships, Los Angeles school officials on Monday deferred any failing grades from this semester until at least Jan. 29, giving students additional time to avoid receiving an F in their classes.

The move is the latest effort by the nation’s second-largest school district to avoid penalizing students under strain during a public health and social crisis that continues to upend their education and worsen family hardships. Most district students are from low-income Latino and Black neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of a dangerous recent surge in coronavirus infections.

The move extends a modified version of the district’s “no fail” policy of the spring semester, when campuses first shut down at the onset of the coronavirus emergency.

The new policy grew out of district concerns about the dramatic rise in D and F grades, a pattern that is mirrored across the country in school systems that have closed campuses and relied on distance-only learning. Among the problems faced by students is inconsistent or inadequate internet access and a poor learning environment at home.

Monday’s directive notes that, compared to last year, grades have deteriorated, especially for “high-need students.”

“Latino, African American, English Learners, Students with Disabilities, Foster Youth, and those students experiencing homelessness had higher rates of Ds and Fs at the Fall 15-week mark and had double digit increases in the percent of Ds and Fs from the previous year at the same time,” said the directive, which was sent out by the Division of Instruction and initialed by Chief Academic Officer Alison Yoshimoto-Towery and Senior Executive Director Pedro Garcia.

In April, L.A. Unified prohibited failing grades for the spring semester and also determined that no student’s grade would be lower than it was March 13, the final day of on-campus instruction. At the time, many teachers and some principals complained that the policy undermined student motivation and some reported a subsequent drop-off in student effort.

The latest no fail rule, announced in the directive to secondary principals and obtained by The Times, is one element of a nuanced approach to grading that is meant to focus on mastery of knowledge rather than work completed. The policy also requires teachers and other school personnel to document extensively the efforts that are made to notify families and assist students at risk of failing a class.

The district directive provides new details on students who were failing classes 15 weeks into the fall semester.

The “percentage of fails” for Latino high school students is 24.9%; for Black high school students, it is 23.2%. This compares with 12.9% for white students and 7.6% for Asians. The gap separating white and Asian students from Latino and Black students has widened, compared to last year.

The number of failing grades for students learning English already was high, but it increased this year by nearly 15 percentage points, rising to an overall figure of 35%.

The overriding goal — besides avoiding failing grades — is to give students a chance to demonstrate academic knowledge without penalizing them for any factors that would traditionally result in a lower grade. Poor attendance, lack of class participation and failing to turn in assignments should not be the basis of a student receiving a failing grade, the directive said.

“Having the camera off should not be weighted into an academic mark,” states the district directive, referring to the now-ubiquitous class sessions on Zoom and other online platforms. “Attendance, engagement, turning work in on time, and/or behavior concerns should be reflected in the Work Habits or Cooperation mark, as appropriate.”

Work habits receive a rating of Excellent, Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory.

If a teacher does assign a failing mark, L.A. Unified’s records system will convert that grade into an Incomplete for the time being.

“The nature of the work to remove the ‘Incomplete’ must be fully stated in a Letter to Parents Regarding Incomplete Work,’” the district states. “Incomplete work must be made up by January 29, 2020, unless mutually extended by student and teacher.”

Even an incomplete rating should be not assigned without notable measures to reach out.

The district says teachers must:

  • Make several attempts to contact the student and family to provide additional opportunities for the student to turn in assignments or make up work and to discuss needed academic support
  • Collaborate with an academic counselor or student support personnel to provide additional support as needed
  • Consult with the site administrator

If a student turns in an assignment that demonstrates knowledge of the subject matter, such an assignment could justify a passing grade or better.

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner alluded to the lagging grades in a joint Sunday opinion piece for the Washington Post with the superintendents of the New York City and Chicago school systems.

“In Los Angeles Unified, where almost 80% of students live in poverty and 82% are Latino and African American, Ds and Fs by high school students have increased about 15 percent compared with last year,” the piece stated. “Meanwhile, reading proficiency in elementary grades has fallen 10 percent.”

In the article, the superintendents called for the equivalent of a domestic Marshall Plan to confront learning loss and meet an array of student needs.

In remarks broadcast Monday, Beutner did not mention the new grading policy, but he did announce that last year the district had recorded a record graduation rate of 82.9%.

Times staff writer Eric Sondeimer contributed to this story.

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