Distance learning grade gap

Increase in ‘A’ grades, but those struggling worsen

In March 2020, schools across the country shut down abruptly and shifted to distance learning. Since then, school districts have noticed the detrimental effects of this transition on students’ grades. 

However, compared to other school districts in the country, Acalanes Union High School District students have not experienced the same impacts on their grades. 

On average, over the past four years, Acalanes district students’ letter grades have remained consistent — with roughly 55 percent of students receiving an A and only three percent receiving a failing grade.

During the 2020-2021 school year, however, the number of A’s given to students increased by eight percent while the amount of failing grades increased by a mere two percent. 

Generally, students’ grades increased this fall semester with the average GPA in the district rising from 3.30 in 2019 to this year’s GPA of 3.37. While this change may seem slight, this increase is notable compared to previous years since the district’s GPA has decreased since 2016. 

Suggested causes for this spike include increased accommodations from teachers, student-based academic dishonesty, and the abbreviation of courses, specifically advanced placement and honors courses.

However, students who struggled in school before the pandemic felt the effects of the transition to district learning most strongly, creating a worrying notion for administrators.

“I was concerned,” Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Aida Glimme said. “We were having a really much higher number of students getting D’s and F’s…it’s really hard to make up for D and make up one F, but it’s really hard to dig yourself out of a hole of three F’s. So when we see a student with multiple (bad grades), that’s a big red flag for us.”

Typically, only about 12 percent of students receive a D or an F each year. While distanced learning did not affect this statistic, the number of students receiving more than one D or F drastically increased this fall semester. 

Of the students who received a D or an F in the first semester, 56 percent of those students received multiple D’s or F’s. 

Among the various reasons that possibly caused the spike in students’ grades, one potential explanation is academic dishonesty. 

With distance learning, teachers struggle to hold students accountable for cheating on assignments and exams. 

“I have had to ‘let it go’ when it comes to cheating and trust that students will have integrity and pride in their own work and not cheat,” math teacher Julee Henderson said. “Students sign the following honesty statement for each assessment: ‘On my honor as a student I have neither given nor received aid on this test. I am using no other resources but my own notes, practice work, note cards or study guides… I will not discuss this exam with anyone else during or after the exam.’”

Nevertheless, cheating among students has continued since the beginning of the school year.

“Yes I 100 percent do think cheating has played a role in getting better grades,” Acalanes junior Michael Kuhner said. “I know a lot of people fall victim to parental pressure to get that A and to do that they might cheat on a test.”

Additionally, due to challenges brought on with distance learning, some teachers adapted their grading policies to further support students. These range from smaller homework loads to allowing students to take tests on their own time.

   “I have been more lenient in my grading practices. There has been so much ‘unknown’ with grading that I have tended toward giving all students the ‘benefit of doubt,’” Henderson said.

Teachers have extended various levels of leniency during the quarantine period,  while some teachers have not changed their courses’ difficulty at all. As a result, students find themselves with a wide range of difficulty levels within their virtual classrooms.

“My teachers have not been lenient at all. But I know some friends who have teachers who are very chill and just give busy work,” Kuhner said.

Some teachers have shortened units or removed material from their classes to prioritize the most integral parts of the course. With classes reduced from 90 to 75 minutes at the beginning of the school year, time limits force teachers to cut two hours of material from every month of school.

“Distance and hybrid learning have required immense changes in my curriculum, so I have had to revise everything I used to do in each of my three subjects taught. We have had to reduce the content covered. The notes and/or the way I deliver lessons are drastically different. The assigned homework is less and of course different. Quizzes and tests had to be shortened and revised,” Henderson said.

While distance learning definitely changed classes and grades throughout the past year, hybrid learning offers a light at the end of the tunnel. 

“Distance learning has had a negative impact on the majority of my students’ learning experience. But despite this, most students are learning a great deal. They have hung in there despite the difficulties,” Henderson said.