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Online education has sent F's spiking by 83% in Virginia's largest school system

By HANNAH NATANSON | The Washington Post | Published: November 24, 2020

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Online learning is causing a serious drop in academic achievement in Virginia's largest school system, according to a Fairfax County Public Schools study, and the most vulnerable students — those with disabilities and English-language learners — are struggling the most.

Between the last academic year and this one, which for most students is taking place remotely, the percentage of F's earned by middle school and high school students jumped from 6% of all grades to 11% — representing an overall increase of 83% from 2019 to 2020. Younger students were more seriously affected than older ones: Middle-schoolers reported an overall 300% increase in F's, while high-schoolers reported a 50% increase.

The effects were particularly pronounced among students with disabilities, who saw their percentage of F's increase by 111% to account for nearly 20% of all grades achieved, and among children for whom English is a second language: Their percentage of F's rose by 106% to account for 35% of all grades achieved.

The impact also differed by race. F's received by Hispanics jumped from 13% to 25% of all grades achieved, while Asian-earned F's jumped from 2% to 4% of all grades achieved. White students' F's rose from 3% to 5%, and Black students' F's rose from 8% to 13%.

"The pattern was pervasive across all student groups, grade levels, and content areas," says the Fairfax study, published online this week. "The trend of more failing marks is concerning across the board but is especially concerning for the groups that showed the biggest unpredicted increases ... namely our English learner students and students with disabilities."

In a statement, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the school system is working as swiftly as possible to repair the damage. He noted that many students who were performing well academically before the pandemic are still earning high marks, although he acknowledged that others "who previously struggled in school ... continue to do so."

Brabrand added: "We are working on identifying these students by name and by need and are working on specific interventions to support them right now and as we phase back in person."

He said FCPS has already taken steps to help struggling children, including by instituting "catch-up days" and extending the first quarter grading period.

The stunning data emerged from an internal assessment conducted over the past weeks by the FCPS Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, which compared students' grades earned in the first quarter of the 2019-2020 school year with the same marks achieved in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year. The goal of the analysis was to investigate "concerns locally and at the state and national level that student performance may be lower ... when virtual instruction is prevalent," according to the report. Fairfax has been online-only for the vast majority of its 186,000 students since March.

Experts have warned since the beginning of the pandemic, and the almost-overnight launch of online learning nationwide, that remote schooling would take a serious academic toll on children.

In particular, the statistics published by Fairfax County Public Schools — often considered one of the best public school divisions in the country — would seem to confirm that children who are engaged and care deeply about school will stay engaged in an online environment, while children whose temperament, resources or home situation have historically barred them from academic engagement and achievement will slip further and further behind their peers.

Employees with the research office analyzed grade data in five different ways, including by comparing raw percentages of F's between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, by examining how that jump compared to increases in F's seen between previous, consecutive, normal years — meaning those without online learning — and by exploring how the probability of passing a course this year was associated with past academic performance, course difficulty and student age. The results across nearly every metric are cause for concern.

Comparing grades achieved in past years to grades this year showed that the drop in good grades is significant and unprecedented. The likelihood of passing an English class decreased by 40% this year for all students, according to the analysis, while the likelihood of passing mathematics decreased by 30%.

The report concludes that, overall, "the effect of [this] school year was negative, indicating that the probability of passing a course decreased in ... 2020-21 as compared to other years."

It also showed that student achievement is seriously off-track in mathematics and English, the two course subjects studied, from what would have been expected based on past performance. According to the analysis, 35% of all Fairfax students are underperforming in math and 39% are underperforming in English.

Again, the dip is especially severe among vulnerable children, and those for whom English is not their first language. Students with disabilities and Hispanic students both saw large spikes in underperformance, compared to other demographic groups studied.

But by far the biggest drop came for English learner children: Forty-seven percent of these students are underperforming in math this year, while 53% are underperforming in English.

The results suggest that course difficulty is playing some role in driving gaps in academic achievement. As the rigor of the class rises, the likelihood of passing it drops: The report states that, "for each increment up in rigor (from standard to honors; from Honors to AP/IB)," the likelihood of passing English dropped by 50% this year, and the likelihood of passing math dropped by 20%. The references were to the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureat programs.

But possibly the biggest predictor of achievement in the world of online learning, according to the analysis, is student achievement in past years. If children were good students beforehand, they were likely to continue receiving good grades this semester, the report says, "even with the added challenges" of online learning.

But if the children were middling or poor students, they suddenly began earning more failing marks, including in classes they had not failed before. Historically low-performing students are seeing an explosion of C's, D's and F's this semester, the analysis states, far more than would have been expected based on their pattern of achievement in past years.

"Results indicate a widening gap between students who were previously performing satisfactorily and those performing unsatisfactorily," the report concludes. "Students who performed well previously primarily performed slightly better than expected during [Quarter 1] of this year.

"In contrast, students who were previously not performing well, performed considerably less well," it continues.

In the final paragraphs of the 20-page report, employees with the school system's research office offered some advice for the path forward.

"Given that FCPS is growing and seeking to improve teaching and learning for all students," they wrote, "schools should continue to monitor student performance for our English learners and students with disabilities in particular and provide intervention supports as needed."

The office's next report on student achievement is due in February.