TEXAS VIEW: Fort Worth schools should focus on learning, not better gradesTHE POINT: Spike in F’s demonstrates the urgent need to get students back in school.

At first glance, the Fort Worth school district’s decision to give students a broad opportunity to make up for missed work or failed grades seems reasonable. Between the stresses of the pandemic and online learning and a range of unusual circumstances for families, school has been a challenge for all sorts of students. Why not give them every chance to rebound?
But the policy creates headaches for teachers and risks masking the very crisis it attempts to address: students falling far behind. Grades matter only if they measure learning and achievement.
The change has shed light on the difficulties posed by “asynchronous learning,” which essentially lets students go at their own pace or don’t go at all. They can follow along with a teacher at the typical class time or log in to do work later. Students can be counted as “present” if they have any contact with their teacher during the day, even a quick text message.
Flexibility is a good guiding principle in the unprecedented time of the pandemic, but loose rules invite mischief. A cynic might note that because school funding is generally tied to attendance, the word “present” has been defined way down.
Like attendance, grades must mean something. A failed grade generally indicates material that was not learned or not studied at all, and that’s the real problem. Students who’ve lost ground during the pandemic will feel the impact for the rest of their academic careers. Younger children will struggle in future classes; teenagers will face increased dropout risk.
Giving them a route to passing classes without mastering the material will only hurt them. There’s a reason that one of Texas’ pioneering education reforms was to curtail the practice of “social promotion,” or moving children along to the next grade because it was deemed in their best interest even if their academic performance didn’t merit it.
Allowing makeup work is not unusual, but reaching back through the entire academic year is a huge task. Teachers have adapted to online work, labored to track down children and helped them through obstacles such as technological hiccups, scheduling and myriad family dynamics. Their reward may now be months of backlogged work to assess as they finish the academic year.
The sobering state of grades and the burden upon teachers also demonstrates the urgent need to get students back in school. Evidence continues to mount that with proper protocols, schools are responsible for little transmission of the coronavirus, including a definitive recent assessment from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There will continue to be exceptions, but the default needs to be in-person education, and quickly.
We’ve urged the Legislature to give schools every possible tool to fully open soon and make up for the impact of the pandemic, including steady funding that doesn’t penalize them for what was beyond their control. Businesses, philanthropies and engaged parents have roles to play, too. Unusual solutions will be necessary, and some, such as an extended school year or expanded summer school, may be unpopular. More children may have to repeat a grade than normal, and schools will need resources to accommodate that.
The fundamentals matter most, and it’s crucial that progress isn’t lost in core areas such as math and reading. The ultimate goal is to make up for lost learning, and that starts with honest assessments — including grades.