Lenient Grading Won’t Help Struggling Students. Addressing Chronic Absenteeism Will.

Two weeks ago, when I wrote about the proliferation of 50 percent grading floors in K-12 schools, I was shocked that there wasn’t more evidence available to have informed such a systemic change in the first place. The teachers I spoke to for that newsletter felt that this kind of policy — which prevents them from giving students zeros, including, in some cases, when they’ve skipped an assignment — coupled with policies that don’t allow them to factor attendance into grading, left them with few options for holding students accountable.

Even some proponents of no-zero grading have acknowledged that there’s not much proof that it actually improves outcomes. A 2010 journal article arguing in favor of this policy — on the grounds that giving students zeros can wind up discouraging them — conceded that the benefits of those “minimum grading” policies were largely theoretical.

In other words, despite the paper’s earnest and sincere conclusion that the ultimate goal of minimum grading is to help children “become better students, adults and citizens,” it was advocating those policies based largely on, well, vibes.

More than a decade has passed since that article was published and there still isn’t much research out there to suggest that changing grading scales improves student outcomes. Other big changes in schools — like going to a four-day school week from a five-day week, which is increasing in popularity, particularly among some rural school districts struggling to recruit teachers — have similarly scant evidence of efficacy behind them.

Once put in place, though, these types of changes are difficult to roll back, said Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Schools don’t work like businesses — beta testing a particular practice, looking at the results and moving forward based on the outcome. Instead, these types of realignments can become the status quo, regardless of what the data says, according to Hill.

That’s what seems to be happening in California with algebra instruction. Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, the San Francisco Unified School District stopped offering algebra in middle school, delaying it until ninth grade to try to close racial achievement gaps in higher-level math, and the results were mixed at best — racial achievement gaps weren’t closed. Now, California might adopt this policy statewide, based on successive drafts of a document, the California Math Framework, that has “cited research that hadn’t been peer-reviewed; justified sweeping generalizations by referencing small, tightly focused studies or even unrelated research; and described some papers as reaching nearly the opposite conclusions from what they actually say,” according to Brian Conrad, the director of undergraduate mathematics studies at Stanford.

After my previous story, I did hear from some educators who’ve had positive experiences applying the 50 percent floor. And I don’t doubt that teaching is an art, as well as a science. But that doesn’t change the reality that strong evidence is lacking that such a practice is academically effective on a large scale. If some students are graduating from high school only because you’ve made standards more lenient, that’s not an achievement, said Hill, adding: “I’ve thought of that as kind of analogous to a country that can’t pay its debts. And so it debases the currency and that works for a little while, but in the end it all collapses.”

A Natural Experiment

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at San Antonio were able to take a look at the consequences of another type of academic leniency in a study based on a natural experiment: The North Carolina board of education decided that every school in the state would shift its metrics to a 10-point grading scale starting in the 2015-16 school year, which meant for most schools, in practice, each letter grade had a lower floor. For example, if a school had a seven-point scale under the old system, an A meant a score of 93-100, while under the new scale, an A was 90-100. The floor for failure went to 60 from 69.

The change allowed researchers to “compare students who happen to belong to the first cohort of ninth graders exposed to more lenient grading because their birth date was just to the right of the kindergarten entry cutoff, to students who happen to belong to the previous ninth-grade cohort because their birth date was just to the left.”

The researchers found that the change lifted grade point averages by .27 points (11 percent), but that it had “no effects on student achievement.” The policy also increased student absences. But those changes weren’t evenly applied across all groups of students: “Students at the top of the eighth-grade performance distribution were the main drivers of G.P.A. gains, but saw no increases in absences. At the same time, students on the bottom end of the distribution saw no G.P.A. gains from greater grade leniency and were the main drivers of increased absenteeism.”

The more lenient grading policy really benefited only students who were already doing well. And the additional absences had knock-on effects for lower-performing students. As the study notes, “Increases in student absences persist and compound over time only for students on the lower end of the test score distribution which is later reflected in decreased ACT achievement for this group.” Thus, “Academic leniency exacerbated achievement gaps and lessened human capital accumulation for students already at a deficit.”

When I talked to Brooks Bowden and Zach Weingarten, two of the three authors of this paper, they wanted to make clear that they didn’t think the results of their paper necessarily meant that the 10-point grading scale should be abandoned. Rather, Bowden said, she sees their research more as a “cautionary tale.” It’s what happens “if we change one aspect of the system without considering these unintended consequences or heterogeneous responses among student groups.”

Which is the challenge in a nutshell: School systems in America are struggling to engage the bottom tier of students.

Attendance Matters

Looking at many indicators of student success — test scores, college preparedness, behavioral issues in schools — it can feel like K-12 education in the United States has reached a particularly grim moment. So I asked Elaine Allensworth, the director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research, what can be done right now. The answer: Butts in seats.

“The fact that absenteeism has gone up is the biggest issue right now and has been overlooked,” Allensworth told me. “People keep focusing on the test scores, but our research shows over and over again that student attendance is an incredibly strong predictor of pretty much every outcome you care about: High school graduation, college ready, college enrollment, college graduation. It’s vital that students actually come to school every day.”

According to one study published in 2021 by the UChicago consortium, ninth grade is a pivotal year for identifying at-risk students who may be more likely to drop out. To address this, the consortium had come up with a program that provided real-time data to principals and other school leaders early in the school year. This data included “ a ‘freshman watch list’ that flagged incoming ninth graders at risk of weak attendance and poor academic performance, monthly ‘freshmen success reports’ that identified students who were having difficulty and might be in need of intervention, and a ‘credit recovery’ report that flagged all students in the spring semester who needed to make up credits in core classes to be on track to graduate.” The percentage of ninth graders in the bottom-performing quartile who got on track to graduate went to 78 percent from 45 percent in eight years after the program was started.

I don’t mean to suggest that achieving this is easy. Reaching students who aren’t coming to class is high-touch work. It involves calling home, figuring out the barriers to attendance and finding resources, often outside the school, to help ameliorate the problems. There are so many common reasons for students to miss school that have nothing to do with their desire to learn, including unstable housing, family caregiving needs and difficulty getting to school when there is a long distance to travel and money is scarce. Many of those problems are beyond what schools can hope to fix.

And bringing kids back from the brink of dropping out or failing to graduate is a particularly heavy lift when you factor in a work force of burned-out teachers. It requires providing students with extra help during lunch and prep periods. Allensworth agreed, saying, “I don’t know that I have a solution for that, except we need schools to be adequately staffed and for teachers to have time to do those things.”

It is clarifying, though, to know that there is something straightforward — reducing absenteeism — that can be done to help the students who are furthest behind. What we need is some kind of galvanizing financial and cultural push to make that happen. We need more Americans to understand the scale of the problem, that in the past school year, about a quarter of schoolkids were chronically absent — missing at least 10 percent of school days; and we need more Americans to understand the ramifications of having a populace where not enough people acquire basic reading, writing, scientific or critical thinking skills. This isn’t the time to play around with unproven grading schemes, delaying math instruction and acquiescing to frequent absences as a new norm. We need to think and be bigger and better than that.

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