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1 in 5 NYC high schoolers received incomplete grades last spring. They have until this month to make up the work.

Brooklyn’s Midwood High School
Roughly one quarter of high school students earned an incomplete grade in the spring, new data show. Pictured here: Brooklyn’s Midwood High School.
Cassi Feldman/Chalkbeat

New York City education officials barred teachers from failing high school students last spring.

Instead, as the pandemic rattled the city and forced campuses to shut down, schools handed out incomplete, or “course in progress,” grades at the end of the term and gave students until the end of January to make up the work.

New education department data show roughly 22% of all high school students received at least one incomplete last spring, and thousands of students may not earn credit in at least one class as the Jan. 31 deadline to make up the work quickly approaches.

At the same time, officials said about 26% fewer students received incomplete grades, the equivalent of failing marks during the previous year, leaving fewer students than usual at risk of having to retake courses, which can knock students off track to graduate.

Still, some educators and advocates are worried about the Jan. 31 deadline — as high schools are once again fully remote — and are pushing to give students even more time to make up work as the pandemic continues to disrupt learning.

“We want to make sure we’re giving students the opportunity to earn credit, and on a timetable that doesn’t penalize them for a situation they did not create,” said Paula White, the executive director of Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group.

Of the 71,675 students who received at least one incomplete grade in the spring, only about 3.6% of them had made up the work by the end of September — adding evidence that the city’s efforts to catch students up over the summer fell far short.

Now, tens of thousands of students must make up work this fall, on top of their current academic loads, or risk having to retake those classes in the future. (City officials noted that the data includes students who have since left the district.)

Advocates want the city to give students more time to make up work, especially as some teachers are still tracking down students with outstanding work. Forcing them to retake courses could have a big impact, as research suggests failing even a single core course can reduce the odds of graduating.

The issue also raises broader questions about how much standards should change during the pandemic and whether extending the deadline for work that was due months ago is the most helpful path for students who have fallen far behind in their coursework.

“We’re going to do what we can to make sure that students don’t come out of this with huge barriers to high school graduation, but that also means corners will be cut in terms of what the standard is,” said one Bronx high school principal, who was not authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.”

New York City’s approach has differed from that of other school districts, some which have continued using F grades and have seen them surge. New York, on the other hand, has left in place a grading policy that avoids failing marks.

The 26% drop in the number of students with incompletes compared to failing grades suggests that the city’s schools may have significantly loosened their expectations and could mean many more students have not have mastered material than the statistics indicate. (A department spokesperson insisted that standards were not loosened.)

The data also lay bare existing inequities in the city’s school system, with Black and Hispanic students disproportionately receiving incomplete marks compared with their white and Asian peers. Black students, for instance, represent nearly 32% of students who received at least one incomplete, but 25% of the overall high school student population. Asian students, by contrast, represent about 16% of high school students, but 9.4% of those who received an incomplete.

“This data merely confirms what we already knew: there is a continuing, urgent need for more resources and support to be prioritized for the kids who need it most,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of City Council’s education committee, calling on the city to extend the Jan. 31 deadline to further accommodate students as they continue to face many challenges. “We cannot let the disparities this pandemic has laid bare to become generational.”

Some educators said they are trying to remain sensitive to students’ experiences during the pandemic. Although the city has distributed over 300,000 devices to access virtual coursework, many students still don’t have one, or suffer from spotty internet access, an acute problem for students in temporary housing. Others may have become de facto caretakers for younger siblings or may be struggling with the economic and health toll of the pandemic, forced to take jobs to help support their families.

Will Ehrenfeld, a history teacher at P-Tech in Brooklyn, said that nearly half of his 149 students from the spring term currently have an incomplete grade — more than the share of students who fail in a typical semester.

Some students have contacted him to make up work, and he has devised assignments such as picking a historical myth to debunk or offering a prediction for how the stock market will fare during the Biden administration.

In general, students who have outstanding work barely turned in assignments and were extremely difficult to reach, he said. Some of these students struggled before the pandemic. In other cases, he wasn’t sure why they fell off track, but in general, he saw many students lose motivation to complete their work.

“I’d say the most frequent [reason] was just a general sense of apathy. School feels really optional right now,” he said.

For now, education department officials are keeping the current Jan. 31 deadline to make up work from the spring.

“Throughout this pandemic, our educators have been working tirelessly to give our students the tools they need to master grade-level content, while being understanding of the trauma they may be facing,” spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement. “We continue to actively work on targeting instruction to the individual needs of each child so they can each be given the greatest opportunity to master the curriculum and material.”

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