Green’s Dictionary of Slang

dead n.1

(US campus) a class recitation that is judged to be a total failure.

Harvard Register in Hall (1856) 378: One must stand up in the singleness of his ignorance to understand all the mysterious feelings connected with a dead.
Class Poem at Harvard College 10: And fearful of tomorrow’s screw or dead, / Take the book and candle underneath his bed.
[US]B.H. Hall College Words (rev. edn) 148: dead. A complete failure; a declaration that one is not prepared to recite.

In phrases

take a dead (v.)

(US campus) to fail one’s recitation.

Harvard Register in Hall (1856) 312: I have a most instinctive dread / Of getting up to take a dead.