University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

It’s Time to Address the “F”

In The View from the OEP on May 25, 2022 at 11:10 am

As report cards are being sent home this time of year, we thought it was a good time to talk about course failure.

Over the past 10 years, high school freshman course failure rates have declined, but more than 1 in 5 students still fail a course in 9th grade. We have shared our earlier research on the statistically significant relationship between high school freshmen GPAs and high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. This led us to dig into the data, and find out which courses kids are failing, and which types of students are the most likely to fail.  We spent this spring semester analyzing ten different cohorts of Arkansas freshmen and from 2010-2019 to explore these three questions. You can read the whole paper or the shorter policy brief, but in this blog we will hit the highlights of what we found.

In 2018-19, the most recent year of data analyzed, we find that 22 percent of Arkansas high school freshman failed at least one course.

The demographic and programmatic characteristics of our Arkansas freshmen sample are below:

Male50.8%Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL)59.1%
White62.0%Gifted and Talented (GT)13.1%
Black19.2%English Language Learners (ELL)6.8%
Hispanic13.1%Special Education (SPED)11.6%
Other Races5.8%Total N35,180

And these groups of students have failure rates with respect to the average that look like this:

As you can see, freshmen demographic and programmatic groups with failure rates higher than average are Black, free-or-reduced lunch (FRL, our proxy for economically disadvantaged), English Language Learners (ELL), male, students receiving special education services (SPED), and Hispanic students. Black students have a failure rate almost 13 percentage points higher than the statewide average.

We then considered these failure rates might be different across the geographic regions of Arkansas. The failure rates by gender and race/ethnicity by region are are similar to statewide rates, but we find unexpected variation among the programmatic course failure averages by geographic region:

Overall, the Northwest region has the lowest failure rate at 18.7 percent, and the Southeast region has the highest failure rate at 28.5 percent. Among programmatic groups however, the FRL, GT, and ELL status course failure percentages are the highest in the Central region. Freshman students in the Central region that participate in the FRL program, or receive ELL or GT program services are more likely to fail at least one course than we would expect given the overall failure rate for the region and the statewide average.

Now that we’ve found Black students have the highest rate of course failures, the Northwest region has the lowest overall failure rate, the Southeast region has the highest failure rate, and programmatic groups are failing at the highest rates in the Central region, we need to investigate what courses Arkansas freshmen are failing. Below are the top ten most failed courses by Arkansas freshmen in 2018-19. We identify core content courses (mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies) with a check mark.

 Failure PercentageCore
Algebra I12.3
Spanish I9.2 
Physical Science9.1
Computer Business Applications8.9 
English 98.8
US History since 18908.4
Family and Consumer Sciences6.4 
World History since 14505.7
Oral Communications5.1 

Algebra I is the course with the highest failure rate for Arkansas freshmen, and this is consistently true statewide for all years examined. Spanish I is the highest failed non-core course for the 2018-19 group of freshmen, but other non-core courses like Computer Business Applications and Art are often in the highest failed non-core course spot.

Now, it might seem like we have addressed our questions, but not as mathematically confidently as we could. Econometrics has some handy mathematical tools that allow us to account for similarities and differences among the groups of students who share demographic and programmatic characteristics, who have similar prior academic achievement, who complete course work similarly their freshmen year, and who are in similar districts in Arkansas. This helps us find a fairer way to measure the effects of students across the state that aren’t skewed towards differences across regions and districts.

Using a logit regression analysis for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years to account for the differences of students across the state, we find statistically significant results below.

Initially, our Black student group had the highest course failure rate, but they are not necessarily most likely to fail a course their freshman year. After the regression that accounts and controls for differences and similarities,

  • White students are actually 1.5 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year than Black students.
  • Economically disadvantaged students are almost 9 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year compared to more advantaged students.
  • White economically disadvantaged students are 11.2 percentage points more likely to fail than White advantaged students.
  • Among economically disadvantaged students, White students are 4.5 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year than Black students.

Interestingly, among our four program statuses, FRL, GT, ELL, and SPED, three of the four denote a less likely to fail association. Students not receiving special education services are 13.1 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year than students receiving special education services. Students not in the GT program or ELL program are also more likely to fail compared to those who are in the programs. Participation in these three programs and services is associated with a lower likelihood of failure, whereas participation in the FRL program is associated with more likely to fail.

This points us to believe SPED, ELL, and GT students are receiving services and assistance that helps them succeed and pass their courses, but that FRL status students are not getting the support that they need. So, what can we do with this information?

In general, programs that have been found to be effective for helping failing or at-risk freshmen are professional learning communities (PLCs), reviewing student data that focuses on the most at-risk students (lower grades and higher absences), arranging Freshman success meetings, and forming intentional relationships with lower GPA students.

To get to the core of the problem the quickest, Arkansas district leaders should consider enacting a “no-zero” policy or minimum grading policies (Feldman, 2019). When a 0-100 scale is utilized in public schools, the weight of the failing 50 points disproportionately harms students of color, low-income students, and English Language Learners. Feldman (2019) reports schools that implement a minimum grading policy, assigning each letter grade the same amount of points, decreased student failures, reduced grade inflation, and reduced achievement gaps. While this policy recommendation may be uncomfortable for teachers as it challenges the norm and the standard zero grade as a punishment, it is necessary to help eliminate the possibility of grading bias.

Malecki and Demaray (2016) suggest social mentorship programs for FRL students from teachers and principals as a support to help them succeed. Economically disadvantaged students feel more welcomed and like they have a place at school when they have a direct relationship with a mentor.

Overall, since freshmen grades and GPAs are associated with future academic success, and we have concerns that our economically disadvantaged students might not be receiving the supports they need to succeed, we need immediate attention brought to each district on grading policies. Identifying and removing barriers to student success is a step towards helping all Arkansas students experience better academic and social outcomes.

If you are interested in the freshman failure rates for your district, shoot us an email at! We would be happy to identify which students in your district are failing and see if we can help you remove barriers to your students’ success. We are presenting this work at the ADE Summit in July, and we hope to see you there!

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