Salem-Keizer high schools cut in half the number of failing grades students earned in the final weeks of fall quarter. But schools still recorded hundreds more students failing classes than typical.

Eighteen percent of all grades high school students received were Fs for fall quarter, which ended Nov. 13, compared to 10% for first semester last year, according to district data provided to Salem Reporter. Schools improved from a 36% failure rate in mid-October.

The results mirror other large school districts in Oregon and across the U.S. which are recording much higher rates of failing or incomplete grades this fall, numbers that could jeopardize student graduation rates.

Even with improvements in recent years, Oregon records one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the U.S., with 80% of students graduating on time in 2019.

For many districts, fall quarter has been the first graded period since many U.S. schools moved classes online in the spring.

“It has been difficult for everyone involved, students and teachers. We feel that we are improving and learning as we go,” said Larry Ramirez, high school director for the Salem-Keizer School District, in an email.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The district switched from a semester grading system last year to a quarter system this year so students could take fewer classes at one time.

Despite that change, the number of students failing classes also increased, with 4,747 high schoolers failing at least one class, about 37% of high school students. Of those, 3,183 failed at least two classes.

Last year, 3,532 students failed at least one class first semester, and 1,890 failed at least two.

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, gave many students an incomplete or no grade at all, rather than failing students who didn’t complete enough work to be graded, the Oregonian reported. All told, 25% of Portland students failed or didn’t complete at least one class during fall quarter.

Some Salem high schools changed grading practices to reduce the number of students failing classes.

McKay High School Principal Rob Schoepper said 48% of his school’s grades were Fs when school administrators looked at the data halfway through the fall quarter.

“That definitely turned into priority number one for us as a school community,” he said.

Schoepper said teachers made more time available in class for small group or one-on-one help with students.

Teachers and administrators also talked about how to fairly grade students and not penalize them for problems with technology and circumstances beyond their control, Schoepper said. The school shifted its grading focus to evaluating whether a student had mastered the material taught in the class, not whether they turned in every assignment.

That meant a student wouldn’t get a 0% for a missing or late assignment, for example.

“It wasn’t so detrimental to their overall grade that it just destroyed their ability to pass the class,” Schoepper said.

McKay also extended the grading deadline for the quarter by one week, giving students and teachers extra time to finish work.

By the end of the quarter, the school’s share of failing grades was 17%, versus 13% for first semester last year.

Schoepper said that was encouraging, but not good enough.

“It was good to see progress, but we’re not done,” he said.

Schoepper said as a parent, he understands concerns that changing how students are graded might reduce the rigor of courses. But he’s confident McKay’s teachers are focused on making sure students meet standards in their classes.

Still, he said there’s no doubt online school is leaving many kids behind, and he’s concerned about students missing credits needed to graduate.

“I worry about kids falling so far behind they just want to give up in this model,” he said. “I worry about our kids’ connection to staff and I worry about them just disengaging in this.”

Second quarter is looking better so far, he said. More students are showing up to class more often.

“Student engagement is going up. I think people’s familiarity with the technology ... is improving every week,” he said.

Ramirez said district leaders know they’ll be playing catch-up when school resumes in person.

That will mean prioritizing academic standards and curriculum that may have been missed and "ensuring students learn the essential components that may not have been covered or covered as deeply as we do in-person,” he wrote.

That will include credit recovery options in the spring and summer for students who failed classes, he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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