The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
In normal times, news of soaring high school graduation rates would be heralded with applause and congratulatory questions asking, “How did you do it?!”
But when Seattle Public Schools announced that the Class of 2022 had received diplomas in numbers never before attainable — particularly among students that the district has long struggled to engage — every parent knew why: During the pandemic, no teacher gave out failing grades.
This is hardly a reason to declare victory.
So-called “do no harm” grading surely eased a chaotic and frightening time for thousands of teenagers. But in the long run, there will be consequences. Before the pandemic, in 2019, just 46 percent of Black 12th-graders at Franklin High School passed all their courses. Two years later, that number had spiked to 97 percent.
If those results came out of ingenious new approaches to teaching, Seattle would be hosting platoons of visiting experts seeking the secrets of its success. But educators are claiming nothing of the sort. On every metric, “These COVID-19-era credentials signal a lower level of aggregate skill than pre-pandemic credentials,” as analysts at the Brookings Institution put it, referring to similar patterns nationwide.
The district has rightly put great emphasis on improving performance among Black male students. But advocates focused on education equity wonder if teachers were “just checking boxes” in order to get kids through school.
They can’t help noting that Black, Latino and Native American students were offered a way out more frequently than white and Asian students.
What may look like kindness now could put young people in a bad place down the line. It isn’t much of a stretch to envision a high school graduate who got a break on her English requirement, later floundering on college-level essays. (Credit waivers were granted most often in English and social studies.)
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education, trying to avoid the calamity of mass failure, allowed thousands of kids to waive core courses and exams normally required for a diploma. Statewide, 9,079 students in the Class of 2021 received these breaks.
School districts also varied in how liberal they were about granting waivers. Kent, for example, allowed 10 percent of its would-be graduates to skip certain assessments, while Highline Public Schools granted that permission almost half as often, and only as a “last-ditch effort.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Washington’s colleges and universities said they wanted to “reasonably accommodate” kids struggling with school during this historic event. It remains to be seen how generous they will feel about extending help to disadvantaged students going forward.