MVLA's failing grades spike during fall distance learning

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The Los Altos High School campus has set largely empty since schools closed last March.

The spike in Ds and Fs during distance learning is persisting at local high schools, with first-semester grades in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District showing a 72% increase in the number of these grades handed out compared to last year.

MVLA originally saw Ds and Fs sharply increase in the first quarter and worked to help students catch up before the end of the semester. Although the raw number of Ds and Fs did drop, as typically occurs between the quarter and semester, they are still elevated well above normal levels.

“We are still in a pandemic. We are still in a very tough situation,” said Teri Faught, the district’s distance learning administrator. “There’s a lot of hardship … and one of the ways that we’re seeing it is with our grades.”

Distance learning has posed particular challenges for certain students, Faught said, like those who have had to work to help support their family and those struggling with mental health challenges while sheltering at home.

During the first semester, teachers gave out 1,309 Ds and Fs, versus 763 last year – a 72% increase. That’s according to data Faught presented to the district’s board of trustees at a Jan. 27 meeting.

The number of Fs spiked particularly sharply, more than doubling from 353 last year to 788 this year. Ds increased more modestly from 410 to 521.

According to Superintendent Nellie Meyer, Fs often indicate that a student was frequently absent and not engaged with the class, while Ds tend to mean a student was struggling with the content.

In distance learning, some students are entirely disengaged, not logging on for any of their classes. The district did not have an exact count of how many students fall into this category.

While Ds and Fs continue to be far above pre-pandemic levels, the raw numbers did improve from the quarter to the semester, going from 2,714 Ds and Fs to 1,309. That kind of drop is typical, even in normal years. Quarter grades act as a progress report and don’t appear on students’ transcripts, while semester grades do. Grades generally improve from the quarter to the semester.

“The difference, though, is that everything is higher. Our Ds and Fs are higher than the typical pattern in the past,” Faught said.

The increase in failing grades isn’t impacting students evenly. Meyer said the district knows that students who already faced greater challenges, such as English learners, are disproportionately failing more classes.

“It is expanding existing gaps,” she said. “It has shined a light on the disparities that we work so hard to correct during the school day.”

Data from the first quarter showed a particular spike in failing grades among students learning English. Administrators say a similar trend continues, though a detailed breakdown by student group hasn’t been completed for the semester.

Catching up

With students failing so many more classes this school year, administrators are trying to find new and expanded ways to help them catch up.

“We want to make sure that we have a few options that we can give this semester, seeing that we have more students and more Fs than typical,” Faught said.

One path has been offering students extensions, so they have more time to improve their first-semester grades. Extensions already existed, but are now being granted more widely. The decision to offer an extension is still up to individual teachers.

According to Faught, an extension may make sense for students who didn’t turn in a major assignment or “bombed a couple of tests.” However, it wouldn’t be sufficient for students who were fully disengaged.

“If you’re (absent) all the time, then an extension’s not going to work for you,” she said. “You need to retake the class.”

MVLA officials are also looking into offering “boot camps” during the weeklong breaks in February and April to help students make up work.

Other options for making up credits include taking classes through the district’s adult education program, a local community college or Edgenuity – a self-guided online content provider MVLA has been offering this year. The district is also looking to “beef up” its summer school program this year, Faught said.

There’s also the option for students 16 and older to transfer to Alta Vista, the district’s continuation high school, which has long specialized in credit recovery.

What options make sense depends on a student’s individual circumstances, as well as their age. Younger students have more time to catch up, and therefore more options. For older students, there’s less flexibility.

“If you’re a senior, you have until June 4 to meet graduation requirements, so you’re in a pretty urgent state to make up any failed classes,” Faught said.

The district is prioritizing helping seniors make up needed classes, but Meyer said she still expects MVLA’s graduation rate will dip – something she believes will occur throughout the country.

Although the district prides itself on its high graduation rate and is “concerned” about the potential drop, Meyer said they are focusing primarily on how students will be impacted. In some cases, she said it will make sense for students to continue working toward graduation over the summer, or to stay on for a fifth year.

“If it takes longer, it takes longer,” she said. “We’re planning to give students multiple opportunities to catch up, to fill in any gaps, and we know our teachers are doing the same.”

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