Data shows failing grades across several school districts as educators face ‘COVID slide’

As kids head back to the classroom, educators will be assessing the pandemic’s impact on learning — what’s been called the “COVID slide” — and identifying any skill gaps to get students back on track.

Data shows learning challenges are real in some areas, with some districts recording high numbers of failing grades as students and teachers tried to adjust to remote classes.

Tacoma parent Elizabeth Heather said it’s been a difficult 17 months for her and her 16-year-old son Alex.

“He pretty much failed all his classes,” Heather said.

“What classes was he having the most trouble with?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“Mostly math and language arts,” Heather said.

But Alex is far from the only student who’s struggled in this pandemic. Data obtained by KIRO 7 from the Tacoma School District shows that in the 2018-2019 school year, which was pre-pandemic, students received 12,697 failing grades.

The next March, COVID-19 struck. Students received 7,025 failing grades after the district decided no one would get a fail in that second semester.

The past 2020-21 school year? Students received 113,796 failing grades.

“We’ve got a huge failing rate,” Tacoma parent Debbie Brown said. “And so how do you bridge that gap? To help the students become more successful? Or even to bring them up to where they’re supposed to be?”

Both of Brown’s children, Ellie and Declan, are at Stadium High School this year. Last year had different impacts on them.

“For the social aspect, I think it really hindered her, it hurt her,” she said. “And with my son, because he’s on the autism spectrum, he thrived.”

Both kids managed to succeed last year academically, and Debbie’s hoping their teachers get all the support they’ll need this year.

Just take a look at math grades in the Tacoma School District.

In semester two, Algebra 1B had a failure/non-complete rate of 18% in 2019.

No one failed in 2020, per the district’s pandemic policy.

But in 2021, the failure/non-complete rate was 29%.

In the Kent School District, Algebra 2 in semester two had a failure/non-complete rate of 19% pre-pandemic.

It went down to 4% when the pandemic hit.

But in 2021, it was up to 30%.

KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon spoke with Tabitha Plotke, who teaches high school English in Kent.

“Did you notice that there were more non completes or failing grades in your class?” Sheldon asked.

“Yes, but it’s also very difficult to compare this year with other years,” she said. “Because this isn’t a year that we compare with other years.”

Still, the data can tell us some things.

“We should get very, very concerned when we see a lot of failing grades but we should not lessen our concern when we don’t see them,” Robin Lake said. Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

“We need to take a clear eye look at where kids are, where they’re missing foundational skills and what can be done to address those skills before they exit the system,” she said.

Dr. Keisha Scarlett, chief academic officer at Seattle Public Schools, said they have tools ready.

“We have baseline assessments that our educators will use… Curriculum assessments to look at what is their learning path and their learning trajectory,” she said.

Scarlett added that SPS will also be working to evaluate children’s social and emotional well-being.

“Our school teams are really starting to launch what we call the culture of care, in order to just, really assess from our students, from their families, from other caretakers just how they’ve been doing,” she said.

The pandemic brought on some grading changes at Seattle Public Schools.

Pre-pandemic, Algebra 1A in semester one had an 11% failure rate districtwide.

In 2021, it had a 5% non-complete rate, with no failures.

That’s because they replaced failed grades with non-completes plus check-ins between teachers, students, and their families.

This coming year, a failing grade at the end of the term will be possible, but those check-ins will continue, plus other changes.

“Number two, they should always be allowed a retake,” Dr. Caleb Perkins, Executive Director of College and Career Readiness at Seattle Public Schools, said. “And number three… teachers should not give grades on an assignment below a 50%.”

Back in Kent, teacher Tabitha Plotke is ready to welcome her students back into the classroom and resume teaching in person.

“It’s about assessing our students’ needs and then meeting them where they’re at,” she said.

Tacoma Public Schools

Tacoma Public Schools Grades

Seattle Public Schools

Fall 2021 Health and Safety Information - Seattle Public Schools (seattleschools.org)

Seattle Public Schools Grades

Kent School District

KSD Academic and Student Well-being Recovery Plan (PDF) KSD Academic and Student Well-being Recovery Plan Board Presentation (PDF)

Kent School District Grades

Everett Public Schools 2021.08.24 family communication - calendar.pdf (everett.k12.wa.us)

Everett Public Schools Grades


2021-22 Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan, Bellevue School District (bsd405.org)

Bellevue School District Grades, KIRO Requested Classes

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