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Grades Declined During Virtual Classes at Wisconsin School

With most students in virtual classes three days a week last year, and 20 percent of students all-virtual, Eau Claire High School saw a drop in As and increase in Fs which principals attribute to remote learning.

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(TNS) — Mirroring a similar pattern in younger students, Eau Claire high school students received more failing grades in the 2020-21 school year than in previous years. School leaders say the pandemic splintered students' ability to attend school.

Eau Claire school district administrators released high school grade data for the 2020-21 school year at an Aug. 16 school board meeting.

"We give the most As than any other grade; those are sitting at about 50 percent (of high school grades)," said Michelle Radtke, the district's director of assessment. "About 10 percent of our grades are Ds and Fs. It's not an astronomical amount, but it's still a lot. We need to pay attention to those."

In both semesters of the 2020-21 school year, the number of A grades high school students earned declined, and the number of F grades increased, Radtke said.

In fall 2017, about 45 percent of high school grades were As, and about 4 percent were Fs.

In fall 2020, about 39 percent of grades were As, and about 14 percent were Fs, according to district data.

Letter grades throughout the school district have stayed consistent in past years, except for in 2020-21, Radtke said. (The district doesn't have comparable grading data for the 2019-20 school year, when for part of the year it implemented pass-fail grading due to the pandemic.)

The grade decline appears to have most impacted students of color, economically disadvantaged students and students needing special education services.

Asian high school students accounted for 14 percent of all F grades in the spring 2021 semester, Radtke said, despite being only about 8 percent of the district's enrollment. Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Pacific Islander and students of two or more races also were overrepresented in the district's percentage of failing grades in spring 2021. White students accounted for about 63 percent of F grades, while making up about 78 percent of the district's enrollment.

Economically disadvantaged students, special education students and male students were also overrepresented. (About 34 percent of Eau Claire students are considered to be economically disadvantaged.)

Schools across the country also reported a significant jump in failing grades last year.

Nearly 40 percent of grades for high school students in St. Paul, Minn. were Fs, double the amount in a typical year, the Associated Press reported in December. Many school officials attributed the decline to widespread problems with virtual school, especially a lack of Internet access and families and students who are unfamiliar with the technology needed to access classes.

Looking for answers

Local high school principals told the school board they believe inevitable problems with virtual classes drove the decline in student grades.

North High School Principal Kurt Madsen said the school attributes "a lot of those Ds and Fs" to the three days per week students were being taught remotely.

Initially the schools "didn't really know how to communicate with the three-day-at-home environment for students," Madsen said. "Students were watching siblings. We heard a lot of anecdotal stories from parents that it's hard to learn in that environment."

In Eau Claire, students and teachers shifted between face-to-face and virtual classes several times last year.

Most students attended three days of class remotely and two days in person. About 20 percent of students attended all-virtual classes for much of the year. (For the final month of the school year, middle school and high school students transitioned to four days of face-to-face classes each week; younger students made the same change in April.)

"Students participated in in-person learning two days a week," Madsen said. "While it wasn't a perfect model, it was a model that kept students in school and seeing teachers face-to-face every week."

Staffing was another big challenge, Madsen said.

"A large percentage of students went into the virtual school that we were trying to staff," Madsen said. "There was an (issue) of trying to find quality educators to teach in a virtual environment. For the last few years I think we've all understood there's been a teacher shortage. We saw that big-time in the 100-percent virtual world."

Students who were exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 had to be abruptly quarantined, which interrupted their schooling, said Memorial High School Principal Dave Oldenberg. A sudden influx of quarantined students into remote classes strained teachers' ability to support them academically, he noted.

Oldenberg and Madsen said their schools plan to tackle the problem this fall.

The high schools plan to identify struggling students and monitor their progress with teachers; reach out to their families with support; add coaching in certain academic subjects; and implement more support and professional development for teachers, among other strategies, Madsen and Oldenberg said.

School board members at the Aug. 16 meeting said they hope to monitor the school district's response in the coming school year.

"I think it'll be really important for us to see that data (shaken) out in different ways," said board member Erica Zerr.

Radtke said the school district next year can desegregate grade data into separate categories for math and English language arts.

"This is an area we know we're struggling with," said school board president Tim Nordin at the Aug. 16 meeting. "Especially when we bring in the idea that this has a significant impact on our ability to graduate students ... the next step is, how do we ensure we're targeting the right factors."

Academic progress fell beyond high schools

Preliminary data from earlier this year suggest that younger students in Eau Claire are also facing academic setbacks.

A May report from the school district suggested that more 3rd, 4th and 5th grade Eau Claire students will make less than a year's worth of progress in reading and math during the 2020-21 school year, compared to the year before.

District administrators, also in May, reported that middle school students earned lower grades in their virtual classes than in their face-to-face classes during a two-month period in spring 2021.

Around 70 percent of middle school students' D and F grades between January and March were grades they earned in virtual classes, DeLong Middle School principal Michele Wiberg told the school board in May.

©2021 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.