Low-Income Student Failure Rates Jump During Pandemic Remote Learning

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Failure rates in English and math for some low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland have jumped as much as sixfold after the state’s largest public school system switched to remote learning during the pandemic.

“It breaks my heart to see so many of these numbers,” school board member Rebecca Smondrowski said, according to the Washington Post. “We knew that gaps were going to get bigger, but these are huge.”

Data reported showed, for example, that more than 36 percent of low-income ninth graders failed English during the first marking period, while less than six percent of the same students who were in eighth grade last year had failing grades.

According to the Post, about 45 percent of English language-learners failed ninth-grade math during the first marking period, compared to eight percent of the same students last year during the same period.

Montgomery County Public Schools cancelled all in-person learning since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March. Administrators lowered criteria for grade achievement in the spring due to the switch from in-person to online classes.

As the new academic year began, however, the district returned to its original grading system. Though officials are considering a return to in-person learning in January, the surge in coronavirus cases is causing them to think twice.

However, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reiterated this week his call for schools to open for in-person learning, asserting schools are not a major cause of coronavirus contagion.

“You know, I was very disappointed in New York when they closed schools, when they hit their three percent point,” Redfield said during an interview with CDC officials and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“[B]ecause, as you pointed out, we now have substantial data that shows that schools’ face-to-face learning can be conducted in K-12, and particularly in the elementary and middle schools in a safe and responsible way,” he explained, according to Fox News.

“We’re not seeing intra-school transmission,” Redfield affirmed, adding:

I just think it’s healthy for these kids to be in school. That said, they got to do it safely and they’ve got to do it responsibly. And when this was started over the summer, no one really knew for certain. They thought that these public health measures would work. But now the data clearly shows us that you can operate these schools in face-to-face learning in a safe and responsible way.

According to the Post, Montgomery County school district’s student population is 32 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 21 percent black, 14 percent Asian, and 5 percent multiracial.

Hispanic sixth graders from low-income families demonstrated the lowest performance in math, with a failure rate jumping from 4 percent last year to 24 percent this fall.

White and Asian students of the same grade showed little difference in performance in math, with failure rates hovering around one percent both last year and this year.

Diego Uriburu, co-founder of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, told the Post, “We are angry.”

“It’s not that they can change things on a dime, but from our communities’ perspective nothing has changed from before the pandemic,” he added. “We hoped that the pandemic was going to be a wake-up call and an inflection point.”

Uriburu said schools are not reaching low-income students from minority families.

“They work very hard, but their efforts are not reaching our communities,” he said. “This is a catastrophe, a huge catastrophe.”

Cynthia Simonson, president of Montgomery County’s council of PTAs, told the Post students, particularly those in special education and English language learners, are struggling.

“That’s probably a very realistic portrayal of what’s happening,” she said. “I think it means we are teaching the content with the same rigor, and I think it’s incredibly sad. This means we are failing to meet the needs of that many students.”

Last week a report from the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia (FCPS) found that, since only remote learning began to be offered in March, the percentage of F’s earned by middle and high school students in the district has jumped 83 percent.

The internal assessment conducted by the FCPS Office of Research and Strategic Improvement compared students’ grades from the first quarter of the 2019-2020 academic year with the grades earned in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year.

FCPS noted the analysis “follows on the heels of concerns locally and at the state and national level that student performance may be lower during the current year, when virtual instruction is prevalent, than in past years when in-person instruction was the norm.”

Data analysis in FCPS also showed, however, that, in required English and math courses, past performance was a significant factor in how students fared during remote learning.

The FCPS report observed:

These analyses indicated that students who performed poorly this year were those that performed poorly last year and would likely have performed poorly even without the challenges presented to them this school year. These results expand on what was described above in Approach 1, confirming that the increases in students with Fs mostly reflect students who had performed poorly in the prior year, too. Those that performed well this school year were primarily those that performed well last school year.

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a statement to the Post that, while the district is working to remedy the problem areas, many students who were performing well academically before the pandemic are still earning high grades, and that others “who previously struggled in school … continue to do so.”


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