2020 | Schools

More MCPS students failing courses during virtual learning

Problem most pronounced among Hispanic, special education students, English learners

More Montgomery County students are failing math and English classes this year as they learn from home because of COVID-19, according to data the school district released on Thursday.

Generally, Hispanic students, English language learners and students in special education programs were more likely to fail classes in the first quarter. In some classes, there was an increase of more than 30 percentage points compared to the prior year.

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

The district didn’t provide data that compared the overall student population, or entire grades.

The district provided data about demographic groups, English language learners, and students in special education programs and poverty. The only data provided were for sixth-graders, freshmen and seniors in English and math courses.

Without more comprehensive data, it’s difficult to deduce how pronounced and widespread the problem is, but it’s clear that many students are struggling to keep up without normal face-to-face classes.

And those students are most often already disadvantaged students who experts warned could fall the furthest behind during the pandemic.

For example, about 7% of Hispanic students in poverty failed eighth-grade math in the first quarter of the last school year. This year, 44% of those students failed freshman math courses, an increase of 37 percentage points.

Across all of the grades and subjects for which data were presented, the number of students failing increased an average of nearly 18 percentage points.

The average increase in failing grades for each group in the data provided was:

• White and Asian students not in poverty: 2.9 percentage points
• Black students not in poverty: 7.6 percentage points
• Hispanic students not in poverty: 14.7 percentage points
• White and Asian students in poverty: 11.4 percentage points
• Black students in poverty: 15.5 percentage points
• Hispanic students in poverty: 24.2 percentage points
• All students in poverty: 19.8 percentage points
• Students in special education programs: 14.2 percentage points
• English language learners: 23.1 percentage points.

Responding to the data

In response to the data, MCPS is immediately changing some of its teaching and grading procedures.

MCPS is advising its educators to adjust courses to focus only on the most important topics, to give more time to teach those concepts. MCPS will reduce the number of tests, increase professional development for teachers, and provide more flexibility for assignment due dates and deadlines.

MCPS will also advise teachers to implement the “50% rule,” meaning students receive a minimum grade of 50% for missing or incomplete assignments.

Smondrowski said she worried the adjustments were being made to “make our numbers look better … rather than making sure students aren’t struggling anymore.”

But, Janet Wilson, director of MCPS’ Office of Teaching, Learning and Schools, said the district found there was too much work for students to manage, and is only trying to respond to “align practice to the environment students are in.”

While this is the second marking period in which MCPS students are learning from home, it is the first time there are data to show how much students are struggling.

In the spring, when schools first closed due to COVID-19, MCPS moved to a pass/incomplete (also known as pass/fail) grading scale.

In the fall, the district moved back to its traditional grading system, though officials urged teachers to be more lenient, citing the tremendous toll virtual learning has had on students and families.

David King, a Walter Johnson High School senior, has testified at several school board meetings this year, pushing members to consider more lenient grading procedures during the pandemic.

During one recent meeting, King said students have unmanageable workloads with less access to teachers, and many are struggling with mental health problems.

“It is ridiculous and irresponsible to continue in this path of action pretending nothing has to change for a traditional grading model,” King said. “… Lessening your expectations of us is the only fair thing to do until we come up with a proper model of intervention.”

New challenges during virtual learning

MCPS data presented Thursday show that sometimes the percentage of students earning top marks also increased. That suggests many students who previously earned average grades, usually Cs and Ds, slipped to failing.

Grace Simonson, a junior at Col. Zadok Magruder High School, said she is used to getting all As and Bs, but has gotten lower marks so far this year. And it’s not for a lack of trying.

With less structure and no face-to-face interaction with teachers and classmates, she said she simply struggles to learn virtually, as do many of her peers.

Lectures that used to be interactive and easy to follow have been replaced with PowerPoints and long presentations with little student engagement, she said. Students can’t walk down the hall to a teacher’s classroom to ask a question. Now, students have to send an email and wait for a response, or wait several days until the class meets again.

Esther Lee, a parent of three MCPS students, wrote in an email that her family has been overwhelmed at times trying to navigate multiple online platforms for online learning, and often, due dates or assignment expectations vary between the platforms, even for the same assignments.

“Generally, I don’t feel that the grading intensity has decreased or increased, but there are so many other factors surrounding grading in a virtual setting,” Lee wrote. “Most teachers are understanding in extending some grace and patience since students are all trying their best to adjust.”

Her son, a freshman at Richard Montgomery High school, said that sometimes, he’s noticed there is less leniency in grading, because there is more “automated grading.” If an answer isn’t submitted exactly as it was by the teacher, it is marked incorrect even if it’s correct or partially correct, he said. He can appeal to his teacher and try to prove why his answer is correct, but it is a time-intensive process.

Students from across the county said they fear the lower grades on their transcripts will hurt their chances of getting into college. And many said their mental health is deteriorating quickly.

Djenebou Traore, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Wheaton, said she and her friends are getting good grades, but not really learning.

The long hours behind a computer screen and trying to share a weak internet connection with her mother and third-grade sister are taxing, Traore said.

“I’ve always struggled with my mental health and procrastination, but this year has been so much worse,” Traore said, adding that she wants to go back to school but she has asthma, which could make her more likely to get seriously ill if she contracts the coronavirus. “… At first, we were on top of things, now we barely find the energy to even log into class.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com