Michigan students, struggling with online classes, saw more F’s on their report cards this year

Michigan students saw more Fs on their report cards than usual this year as many kids have struggled to keep up with online-only classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the efforts of teachers to keep students on track, K-12 schools have faced immense challenges with conducting distance learning. The abrupt closing of schools last March forced teachers to pivot quickly to remote learning at an unprecedented scale.

School leaders say students at all grade levels have struggled with online classes because of the lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers, as well as other issues such as technical glitches and the lack of access to technology.

“It takes a lot to be an online learner, and a lot of kids weren’t ready for that,” said Jenison High School Principal Brandon Graham. “We discovered that there were a lot of barriers that prevented them from being successful.”

Report card data from Jenison High School shows students who took online-only classes did worse in school this fall than students who attended school in-person.

Almost one-third of students taking remote classes this fall failed at least one of their courses at the Ottawa County high school. In comparison, only 15{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of students taking in-person classes failed one course, Graham said.

The staggering fail rate left administrators scrambling to support students without lowering grading standards. The school created a credit recovery program, allowing students to earn back credits they lost from failed classes in the fall.

The high school also asked any students who failed at least one online class this fall to take their classes in-person this semester.

Since then, half of all students who failed remote classes last semester and switched to in-person are currently passing their classes, Graham said.

“Our early results are looking very positive – the kids that struggled online that are now back in person are doing significantly better in their classes,” Graham said.

Educators have struggled with whether to assess student performance with the same pre-pandemic academic standards, or to give more leeway given the challenging circumstances.

“We all were in unchartered waters,” Graham said. “I think we did everything we could to keep our standards where they were, but also maybe giving kids a little more grace with getting their assignments in.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District drastically altered the way it will grade students this year, eliminating all D and F grades from report cards because of the number of students who performed poorly in online learning in the fall.

About 20{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of elementary and middle school students and 35{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of high school students failed at least one class in the first quarter. That’s about twice the fail rate of the previous school year, said Clare Liening, a district spokesperson.

The district has introduced a new G letter grade, which will be retroactively applied to all fall report cards to replace any D grades. Officials will also replace all F grades with a “No Credit” marking to help save students’ GPAs during remote learning.

Students will be able to retake quizzes and tests up to two times to demonstrate their understanding, and homework assignments will be limited to reading and studying, according to district documents.

The new grading system was recommended by a 200-member task force to improve online learning.

Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Sam Sinicropi said the level of concern about academic performance is high for educators statewide.

“I haven’t talked to anybody that’s in any kind of virtual format that isn’t having almost the same issues as everybody else,” he said. “The learning loss is everywhere.”

Sinicropi said while some students have performed better in online-only learning because of the flexibility and independence, most students have struggled and are not performing as they did in the past under this environment.

“Our biggest concern is to get the kids actually on the screen, let alone paying attention to doing the things they’re supposed to do,’’ he said.

But at this point, it is unclear what level of learning loss Michigan students are facing. The Michigan Department of Education is again asking the federal government to waive standardized testing requirements this spring.

A waiver was granted for 2019-20 to bypass the testing due to the coronavirus pandemic, so Michigan could be without two years of academic data for school districts.

RELATED: Michigan asking feds to cancel standardized tests after year of inconsistent education

Reeths-Puffer Superintendent Steve Edwards said he has seen vastly different levels of learning loss among students, making it difficult to know definitively what impact the pandemic has had on student performance.

For example, Reeths-Puffer High School in Muskegon County recorded a higher fail rate for students in grades 11 and 12 in the fall compared to 2019-20, while students in grades 9 and 10 performed slightly better during the pandemic compared to the year before.

“I think often people want to draw a direct connection between the pandemic and proficiency, but this year was less predictable than we expected,” Edwards said. “I think that one of the things that we’re seeing is there isn’t necessarily a direct connection. We’re honestly still trying to make sense of our data.”

Without standardized testing data, schools are primarily relying on benchmark assessment data to see how much students have grown academically throughout this year.

“If Michigan does do full assessments this spring, parents and educators will have a really clear idea of how much their children have fallen behind,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the nonpartisan group Education Trust-Midwest.

“We know that rural kids in Michigan lack reliable internet and device access. It would make sense that we would see some of the greatest learning loss in rural communities, but we can’t get a better understanding of that without assessment data.”

Almost half (45{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}) of parents across the state say that the quality of teaching and instruction their children receive is worse during virtual learning, according to polling Education Trust-Midwest had conducted of 400 Michigan parents in December.

Polling shows 91{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of Black parents and other parents of color were concerned about their child falling behind academically because of the pandemic, while 83{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of white parents shared that concern.

“While we can’t document yet all of problems that have been created by school disruptions, what we do know is that parents are really worried about it,” Arellano said.

The poll finds 85{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of parents agree state leaders should have a plan to address learning loss and make sure students catch up to their current grade level.

On Thursday, Feb. 4, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a new Student Recovery Advisory Council, comprised of 29 members with a variety of educational, medical and labor backgrounds, who will make recommendations on how to help students recover.

“It is important to remember that schools also provide other services that students need to succeed including reliable access to the internet, nutritious meals, and mental health supports. COVID-19 has exacerbated inequities in our education system, and we know more work is needed to address the significant impact this pandemic has had on our children,’’ Whitmer said in a press release.

State Superintendent Michael Rice said Tuesday that layering in additional learning time next year will help students address foregone learning during the pandemic.

He said the current minimum 180 instruction days required was too low before the pandemic and the state legislature should increase it.

To help you navigate this complicated school year, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.

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