With winter break either here or only a week away, the first report cards of the 2020-21 school year are going out. And they’re terrible.

Schools everywhere in the country are reporting steep dives in the average grades of their students, with several times more failing grades than in previous years, especially in students with disabilities, home disadvantages, or home languages other than English.

Remote learning is a large factor – students learning from home are less likely to complete all assignments or to attend class at all, and teachers are finding it much more difficult to keep on top of how their kids are doing in general.

In most states, the numbers of middle and high schools who are failing at least one course appears to have risen from approximately 8 percent to 40 percent or higher. And an astonishing number of those students have scores of 0.0 in those courses, indicating that they’ve never participated at all. In general, these failing grades don’t indicate that the students aren’t learning anything, but that they’re not able to engage and participate.

Many schools have had some success with outreach efforts, for example, returning the hardest-hit students to the classroom first for in-person teaching, giving them more time to complete assignments, and involving their parents with seminars about supporting remote students. But these tactics all have risks and requirements, so there is a limit to what schools can do. In-person education and seminars in disease hot spots is irresponsible, and schools with low funding don’t necessarily have the staffing resources to give students more personal attention, let alone a more resource-intensive slowed-down schedule.

In an interesting quirk of the data, students who were performing at the top of the charts before the educational upheaval of the pandemic appear to be doing slightly better than before, on average, indicating that the key to academic success really is engagement.

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