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Black and Latino students in Chicago were more likely to receive ‘incompletes’ during pandemic

Overall, all students received more As and failed fewer classes following the district’s new grading policy


Chicago students got better grades and failed fewer classes this past spring, even as they struggled with the abrupt shift to remote learning. 

But based on new district data, Black and Latino students were more likely to receive “incomplete” grades than white peers, which will force them to make up school work during the summer or in the fall. And they were much more likely to get “passes” instead of letter grades. A “pass” doesn’t hurt their overall grade point averages, but it also does not improve them. Some students worry that could raise questions for college admissions officers. 

Across the country, school districts wrestled with how to assess learning and grade student performance amid the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting mass school closures. Amid lagging student engagement in late April, Chicago Public Schools switched to a stricter grading policy, which spelled out that students who missed school work would get “incompletes” and have to catch up later to get credit and stay on track for graduation. 

The new guidance spurred a major increase in student participation. But it also drew criticism from some students who argued that the policy penalized low-income students, students without access to internet and technology, and Black and Latino students, whose lives often were more disrupted by the pandemic.

District leaders hailed the new grading data as proof that the policy did not affect students of color disproportionately. Overall, a small fraction of high school students got incompletes, while more students received As - a trend that held true regardless of race. 

“The grading data does dispel the myth that our grading policy disproportionately impacted students of color,” schools chief Janice Jackson told the district’s governing board this week.

But Amy Meek, a lawyer with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights  says the numbers do show some troubling racial gaps. The organization is weighing legal action.

“During this pandemic, school policies should work towards eliminating racial disparities, not reinforcing them,” she said.

The new grading data, when coupled with the student participation numbers the district shared previously, provides a rare window into how the district’s remote learning went during the spring when school buildings were closed. District leaders said the data will inform changes for the fall.

Some teachers told Chalkbeat that they made allowances for the upheaval students experienced in their lives and, in some cases, simplified assignments to help them keep up. Those steps, along with a ban on giving students lower grades than they were on track to receive pre-pandemic, likely account for spring semester grades that overall were higher than last year’s. 

More As, more incompletes

The grading data reflects grades students received in math, English, science, and social studies this past spring and compares them to second-semester grades during the 2018-2019 school year. District officials noted that the distribution of grades overall remained relatively stable, with more students receiving As across grade levels and, at the high school level, more students receiving passing grades. 

This past spring, almost 40% of the grades high school students got were As in those core courses, compared with fewer than 30% the previous year. Meanwhile, slightly more than 5% were non-passing grades, compared with 6.6% at the end of the last school year.

One fifth of grades were “passes” rather than a letter grade. That includes the grades of all students who used paper packets with assignments instead of logging in virtually — a requirement that some critics of the district’s policy have decried.

In elementary schools, more than 37% of students received As, an increase from roughly a third the previous year. Although fewer than 1% of students got a failing grade, a significantly higher portion got incompletes — about 10% of elementary students overall. District leaders stressed that incompletes are not holding elementary students back from advancing to the next grade. 

Officials noted that these trends largely applied across races. Jackson said previously reported racial disparities in the rates at which students participated in remote learning are “disheartening.” However, she said, the grading data shows no disproportionate effects by race.

The data does show some racial gaps. For instance, in high school math, more than 8% of black students’ grades and 7% of Latinos’s grades were incompletes, compared with less than 2% for white and Asian students. More than a fifth of Latinos and almost a quarter of blacks got passes instead of letter grades, compared with roughly a tenth of Asians and whites. Similar though less pronounced disparities are evident in high school reading as well. 

The data also shows striking disparities in the portion of As students of different races got, including a 30 percentage point gap between Black and white students. However, those disparities pre-date the pandemic, with such gaps largely in line with what they were last spring. 

Changes coming this fall

Meek, the attorney with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said the group is still analyzing the data, which it had sought through a public records request. (Chalkbeat Chicago has filed a separate Freedom of Information Act request seeking the grading data broken down by each grade level. The data released this week doesn’t include a grade-level breakdown.) 

But Meek said the disparities in incompletes and passes could mean that students of color have more school work to make up and have fewer opportunities to improve their GPAs. 

“These are exactly the concerns we’ve been hearing from student leaders who’ve been advocating for a more equitable grading policy from CPS,” she said. 

The attorneys had connected with leaders from the group Chi Students Pandemic Response, which Black and Latino students formed to push back against the district’s grading approach. Meek said her nonprofit is collecting stories from students who received incompletes because of circumstances outside of their control, such as technology hurdles, the need to care for younger siblings, and essential worker jobs they took on to support families under financial pressure from the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the district said the grading and participation data it compiled is informing changes this coming fall to ensure more consistent student access to school work and more accountability across its campuses. For example, all schools will now be required to use Google Classroom to share assignments and connect with students as well as Google Meet for live video classes, said LaTanya McDade, the district’s chief academic officer. All schools will track student engagement using the same system. 

And, McDade said, the district will establish clear expectations for teacher participation in virtual learning. She told the board that about 80% of high school teachers logged on to the district’s Google digital learning platform at least three days a week last spring, and 55% of elementary teachers did — numbers the district would like to see increase.

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