Student absenteeism rose, graduation rates hardly budged during COVID, Calif. data show

New state data about schools in California show student absentee rates rose significantly in many districts last year, but graduation rates were barely affected by pandemic-related school closures.

The state released a trove of data on school performance including student testing data, but it lacks information about how well most students fared because only a fraction of students took the state’s standardized tests.

Because of the disruption caused by statewide school closures and remote learning, school districts and charter schools were allowed to choose their own tests last year, instead of using the state’s tests for measuring student performance.

Of those who took the tests, about half of those students in the state, and in San Diego County, failed to meet state standards in English language arts and about two-thirds did not meet state standards in math.

State and local officials say this year’s test scores should not be compared to pre-pandemic test results.

“We did not think standardized testing should happen at all in the ’20-21 year because we think that any data that comes out of the ’20-21 year is not gonna leave people with a clear picture of where students are at,” said San Diego Unified School Board Trustee Richard Barrera.

The rest of the state data released Friday show that many more students were frequently absent from school last year than in prior school years, an indication that students struggled to engage with online learning.

High school seniors graduated at similar numbers as they did pre-pandemic, as districts found ways to show grace to students through grading and graduation requirements. Also, suspension rates plummeted to a fraction of a percentage point, as students learned remotely.

Education experts stressed that everything needs to be viewed in the context of the pandemic, and policymakers should focus on giving schools what they need during a chaotic time rather than judging them for not doing better.

“This is just not the time to engage in the blame game, because everyone’s under stress; everybody is tired,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA. “That’s why we have to put less emphasis on those traditional metrics and let’s understand the context right now. That’s not to say we’re not going to do everything in our power to help kids learn, but it’s just a different moment right now.”

Test scores

There are no reliable statewide test scores for the past two school years that can be compared to scores from before COVID, state school officials said.

No test data is available for the 2019-20 school year because state standardized tests were canceled that spring due to the sudden onset of pandemic school closures. And test data for the 2020-21 school year represent only a fraction of students, officials said.

State officials said the school closures in 2020-21 were so disruptive that many schools were unable to administer state tests.

That school year districts had to create or transition to online learning platforms and distribute laptops to students, and educators had to learn how to conduct school remotely.

Not all students had access to reliable internet or consistent access to a computer or a convenient location to allow them to take the state tests, school officials have said, and at times some teachers even struggled to figure out where all their students physically were.

As a result, districts and charter schools were allowed to choose their own assessments rather than use the state tests. Less than a quarter of students statewide took and completed the state tests in all subject areas, state school officials said.

In San Diego County, about 18 percent of eligible students took the state tests last year, compared to about 96 percent taking them in 2018-2019.

Of the San Diego County students who took state tests, about 50 percent met or exceeded state standards in English language arts and 33 percent did so in math.

In 2018-2019, when participation was much more complete, about 57 percent of county students met or exceeded standards in English and 45 percent did so in math.

Because of the small number of test-takers, it’s impossible to know how much the differences in test scores are due to differences in teaching and learning or to the different population of test-takers, state school officials said.

“Educators, parents/guardians, and community partners are always encouraged to use a variety of data when making decisions, or making inferences about education programs and policies, but in this time of disrupted data, these cautions are even more critical,” state education department officials wrote.

Many school districts in San Diego County, including San Diego Unified, chose their own tests to measure students’ performance, rather than the state standardized tests. School districts and charters still have to report the results of their own tests.

About 35 percent of San Diego Unified students who took district-chosen tests were at risk of not meeting state standards in reading last spring, according to the district.

Even before the pandemic school closures, Barrera and other school officials have shied away from relying on state test results to improve schools. State test scores are limited in that they represent student performance at one point in the year, and they come the following school year, too late to help teachers help students improve.

“It’s the people who are close to the kids who are gonna be able to tell us what kids need. It’s not gonna be standardized data sets,” Barrera said.

Chronic absenteeism

The just-released data show 16 percent of San Diego County public students were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the school days last school year. That compares to 11 percent missing that much time in 2018-19 school year.

The state chose not to publish data from 2019-20 due to the emergency school closures.

Most school districts in the county saw higher absenteeism rates during the pandemic. All but 13 of the county’s 42 school districts had rates of 10 percent or more. At 13 districts, at least one out of five students were chronically absent.

At San Diego Unified, chronic absenteeism was 14 percent, up from 12 percent before the pandemic.

Grossmont Union High School District had the highest absenteeism rate in San Diego County. About 62 percent of Grossmont students were chronically absent — a leap from 18 percent two years before.

No other district came close: The San Diego County Office of Education, which runs schools that only serve high-needs students, had a 41 percent absenteeism rate, which was comparable to its rate before the pandemic. Next highest was Escondido Union High School District, which had a 36 percent absenteeism rate, up from 15 percent before the pandemic.

During remote learning, many educators struggled to find all their students and get them to show up on their Zoom screens, and when they did, students often kept their cameras off and engaged little with the class.

The reasons for that were numerous, teachers said: Some students didn’t have parents available to help them with schoolwork or didn’t have a home environment conducive to learning. And many students simply struggled to connect to or care about Zoom learning.

Disadvantaged student groups were more likely to suffer these hardships, and it shows in the state’s data.

Homeless and foster youth had some of the highest absenteeism rates, at 35 percent and 39 percent respectively. English learners, students with disabilities and low-income students all had absenteeism rates above 20 percent, and so did Black and Latino students.

“The number one challenge for the district and for the individual schools, individual teachers was engaging students — period,” Barrera said. “Everything that we look at for the 2020-2021 year just has to be seen and understood in the context of students really struggling to engage.”

Graduation rates

Unlike absenteeism, four-year high school graduation rates hardly changed during the pandemic.

San Diego County’s overall graduation rate for public school students remained at 83 percent for the last two school years, compared to 82 percent pre-pandemic.

San Diego Unified’s graduation rate stayed the same at 89 percent for the last two school years, compared to 88 percent pre-pandemic.

For some school districts, graduation rates increased by a few percentage points during 2019-2020, then fell back down to pre-pandemic levels in 2020-2021.

In 2019-20, when schools closed mid-year and students transitioned from in-person to online learning, several school districts relaxed their grading policies or skipped issuing new grades altogether.

San Diego Unified held students harmless in 2019-2020, so students couldn’t get any lower grades than what they had just before the pandemic began. Some districts like Poway stopped giving new grades during the spring of 2020. Others switched to a pass/fail system.

Then in 2020-2021, school districts expanded their summer school offerings and credit recovery programs to include more students, paying for it with government COVID aid.

Some districts eased their graduation requirements for students who struggled during school closures. For example, San Diego Unified allowed schools to submit graduation waivers for students who did not complete all their coursework during school closures.

The waivers allowed students to graduate with a GPA of 1.75 or higher, rather than the typical 2.0. The forms also allowed students to waive up to 6 credits per semester or 4 credits per quarter, but students still had to meet the state’s credit requirements for graduation.

The state data show there are still wide gaps between the number of students who graduate and the number who meet the admission requirements to get into the University of California and California State University.

Across San Diego County last school year, 83 percent of seniors graduated but half met the admission requirements.

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