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Many high school students are behind. One Queens mom wants New York City to let them repeat a grade.

Two students work on their laptops in a classroom, partially silhouetted against a window.
Two students work on their laptops in a classroom. More than one in five high school students received “NX,” or no credit, in a core class in the spring of 2020, and high school students continued to receive such designations this past school year. Now, one Queens parent is petitioning for such students, including her son, to repeat a grade.
Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat

Every Monday through Thursday, Helen Kor receives an automated voice message stating that her teenage son TJ failed to attend summer school class periods 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 – in other words, all of them.

“I’m like ‘yes, I’m fully aware,’” said Kor, who finds the repeated phone calls both a nuisance and an indication that school administrators are not listening to her.

For months, Kor has been trying to communicate to administrators that she would like TJ to repeat the 10th grade. TJ, an only child who this past school year was a sophomore at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, fell so far behind academically and socially that Kor feels he would benefit from an extra year of high school.

Administrators, meanwhile, have been trying to help TJ and students like him get back on track after a year of pandemic disruptions. They have offered remote tutoring sessions on weekends along with summer school and extra time to complete coursework. New York City schools tend to see repeating a grade as a last resort. In one email to parents from TJ’s school, the principal wrote: “YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TO HAPPEN” referring to the prospect of a student failing to move onto the next grade level.

Kor, who opted out of summer school for her son because of travel plans and because she hoped to prioritize his mental health, believes some students will fare better with an extra year of high school.

In May, Kor created an online petition arguing that high school students who received NX, or no credit, for core classes (English, math and science) two years in a row should not be promoted to the next grade level. “NX” is a specific designation the city is issuing to high school students in lieu of Fs, a less punitive alternative aimed to account for the many challenges created by the pandemic. More than one in five high school students, nearly 72,000, received this designation in at least one class in the spring of 2020 when the nation’s largest school system went fully remote.

“If these students are promoted to the next grade for the 2021/22 school year without demonstrating competency in core courses, then they will endure greater stress and anxiety in having to complete the required number of credits in less time for the remaining tenure of their high school,” the petition states.

Pandemic grading policies

While helping students with credit recovery can be tricky, holding students back can have downsides, too. Research has shown that forcing students to repeat a course can increase the odds that they drop out from school. For that reason, some advocates praised the education department’s decision to create a more lenient grading policy during the pandemic. Officials barred teachers from failing high school students last spring, and then gave students a deadline of Jan. 31 to finish incomplete coursework. As that deadline approached, though, school officials decided to allow students to appeal for more time. If approved, those students were given a “customized” due date no later than June.

The education department has not released data on how many students completed the coursework by the June deadline, or how many students received no credit for coursework this year. They did say that students who earned a grade of NX in the spring of 2021 will have until January 2022 to complete that coursework, and students who do not meet that deadline can either repeat the course, or take another course to satisfy graduation requirements.

“This year’s grading policy was designed to maintain a high bar for student achievement, while being responsive to the realities and challenges of an ongoing pandemic,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the education department. “Similar to the approach across the state and country, high school students who need to make up course credit can do so this summer, or retake courses during the school year.”

Across the country, more students have been failing classes this year. Some states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California recently passed legislation that would allow some students the option to repeat their most recent grade level.

But in New York, the idea of repeating a grade to make up for COVID learning loss has gained little traction. Only 120 people have signed Kor’s petition, and the education department noted that holding kids back risks social and academic stigmatization.

Paula White, the executive director of the advocacy group Educators for Excellence in New York, said that while the petition brings forth an important conversation, it is premature.

“We cannot have this conversation without having a robust data set to make sure we are not penalizing students for a situation they did not create,” said White, pointing out that a number of students lacked devices or stable internet connections, barriers that should not prevent them from accelerating to the next grade level. She also pointed to recent research showing that remediation, or reviewing all content students missed during the pandemic, is less successful than “learning acceleration,” or addressing gaps in learning with “just-in-time” interventions.

Recovering from learning loss

In Brooklyn’s District 20 — which spans Bay Ridge, Borough Park and part of Sunset Park — the parent-led Community Education Council completed a survey to gauge families’ perspectives on schooling during the pandemic. Although 88% of respondents indicated that their child needed additional support to be ready for school in the fall, less than 4% indicated that their child would not be ready for the next grade level.

Steve Stowe, president of the council, emphasized that the parent participation in the survey was low, with only about 2,200 responses for a district enrolling more than 35,000 elementary and middle school students as well as more than 4,000 children in pre-K and 3K.

Still, the responses yielded some insights. Notably, parents overwhelmingly support promoting students to the next grade level, even if they need some extra academic help.

The education department envisioned the summer program — which is free and open to all city residents — as a bridge to support students who experienced learning loss and social isolation during the pandemic. More than 200,000 children enrolled in the program. But Kor decided not to send TJ to summer school. Despite the city’s emphasis on social emotional learning and activities beyond academics this summer, Kor feared that the coursework would be “punitive” and said she wanted TJ to spend his summer focusing on socializing outside of a classroom.

“Summer school is not going to resolve his situation, and I want him to have a fresh start in the fall and repeat the grade,” she said.

High school students who choose not to attend Summer Rising are not penalized, the education department said, and their school will provide them with a program in the fall to support their progress towards graduation.

Kor said she does not yet know whether TJ’s school plans to promote him to 11th grade or not. Promotion decisions are finalized in August, the education department website states, and parents who are not satisfied with promotion decisions have the right to appeal the decision to the superintendent.

What are your thoughts about your child moving to the next grade level? Email us at ny.tips@chalkbeat.org.

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