By Jacob Schramm, Staff Writer.
In December 2020, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post asked whether it was “fair to give kids regular A-F grades when nothing has been regular about the way they are living and learning since March  and won’t be for some time?” Earlier that year, the Pennsylvania (PA) Department of Education cancelled PSSA and Keystone exams, standardized tests administered annually based on state standards for what students should know and be able to do at their grade level, stating that “assessments should not be the focus of school leaders right now.” Such comments and actions reflect a crisis faced from the local to state level about the extent to which students have experienced learning loss during the pandemic, and how to effectively address those ongoing losses. The US Department of Education has observed that the pandemic negatively affected academic growth especially in math and reading, and another study estimated educational losses at 30% in reading, and 50% in math. Though more school districts held schooling in-person in 2020-2021, albeit at a hybrid or flex-capacity, many continued to express concern about their students’ academic growth and achievement. Bucks and Montgomery County educators mostly agreed that there were apparent signs of learning loss among students even though 88% of students received in-person instruction in 2021.In Pennridge School District, elementary students dropped at least one full year of growth since 2020, while grades continued to drop for secondary students. On June 30, 2021, the PA legislature passed Act 66, authorizing parents to decide for themselves whether their student should repeat a grade level for the 2021-22 school year.
Act 66 was passed with the intent to ensure that the “present generation of children” do not lose education because of the pandemic, and allows parents and adult students (including 21-year-old students with disabilities) the option to repeat the previous grade. The author of the bill, Senator Jake Corman, cites the extreme circumstances of the past two years, stating, “it makes sense to empower parents to make the final decision about the education of their children.” The Act applied to students in all PA public school districts and approved private schools, intermediate units, and charter, cyber, or technical schools. The Philadelphia School District advised that opting students would likely repeat courses from the prior year, and there was no guarantee that students would attend the same school as they did previously. In addition, school districts would follow the same local policies for documenting repeated coursework on the student’s transcript as a student who failed, and the PIAA advised that students would not be given an additional year of athletic eligibility.
Parents were given just two weeks after the Act’s signing to communicate their decision to districts. Reports in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suggested that this narrow timeline led many to miss the chance to opt in. In Philadelphia, only 495 of the over 200,000 district students opted to repeat a grade. In addition, school districts were only given details related to the Act’s execution on July 7, just eight days before the deadline. Administrators worried about the impact of the Act on the 2021-22 school year, as the PA budget was finalized well before June 30, and the PA Department of Education advised that the enacted budget did not include funding for schools to fulfill the requirements of Act 66. Though the cost-per-student varies between school districts and the needs of students, one educator estimated, that it is not uncommon to spend “$100,000 or more” on just one student with high needs.
Research is split on the academic benefits of repeating a grade. A study completed by the Edweek Research Center observed that while retention “sometimes” helps academically, those gains quickly fade as social- and self-confidence also declines. Laura McGuinn, a professor of pediatrics at UAB, emphasizes the effect of retention on a student’s social and emotional development, suggesting that it leads to higher stress in the classroom and significantly raises the likelihood that the student will drop out of high school. Many say that students’ mental health is already in crisis from the loss of the school year, rites of passage, and connections to the school environment, so parents were forced to decide with uncertain academic payoff and serious potential fallout for their child.
It will take years until we know the effect of these “lost” school years, and decisions required by Act 66 will have a long-lasting impact on students and the education system at large. As of July 2021, Pennsylvania was the only state to enact such legislation, with others choosing to pass students regardless of performance. In either case, academic achievement will likely become more disparate across grade levels, and society may see the impact of lowering educational standards altogether as the pandemic carries on. Act 66 demonstrates the nuanced approach to education legislation that may be necessary going forward, as schools, parents, and students try to continue achieving academic excellence in the face of so many obstacles.
 https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/20210608-impacts-of-covid19.pdf; see also https://www.johnlocke.org/update/should-students-repeat-their-current-grade-due-to-covid-19-school-closures/;
 https://www.fox29.com/news/as-school-approaches-fewer-local-students-choose-to-repeat-a-school-grade. See also https://www.wtae.com/article/want-your-child-to-repeat-a-grade-this-fall-due-to-the-pandemic-you-have-until-thursday-to-act/37004374#
 See https://www.edweek.org/leadership/tens-of-thousands-of-students-may-have-to-repeat-a-grade-should-they/2021/05; See also https://www.du.edu/marsicoinstitute/media/documents/Does_Retention_Help_Struggling_Learners_No.pdf; See also https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/07/when-kids-are-held-back-gains-can-follow