Roughly 10% of all secondary school students in Hawaii received failing marks in core content areas like math, English, science and social studies in the first quarter of the school year, according to new official data, which suggests that distance learning is taking a toll as the pandemic stretches into a ninth month.

Also concerning was a high percentage of students who received no grades at all due to a lack of work on which the teachers could measure progress.

The figures, contained in a data dashboard published by the state Department of Education this week, provided an early indication of how much students have suffered academically as they have struggled to adapt to remote learning practices that vary from school to school.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school student raises her hand in class during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
First-quarter grades and other data released by the DOE show students are having a hard time coping with distance learning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“I think this is a sign of the reality that schools and teachers are grading on different bases. Now that we’ve moved to distance learning without a lot of warning and professional development, I think teachers’ expectations are very different,” said Deborah Bond-Upson, a board member of Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, a nonprofit advocacy group.

She added that schools need deeper and more subtle ways of grading and “more established standards.”

Distance learning has been challenging due to a number of reasons: internet connection issues at home, lack of a distraction-free environment in which to work and decreased levels of student motivation, say some teachers.

Particularly hard hit were students classified as vulnerable, including those learning English as a second language, low-income students, and special education students.

Up to 17% of vulnerable high school students got a failing grade in math compared with 12% of high schoolers overall, the dashboard showed, while 16% of vulnerable high schoolers got a failing grade in English compared with 12% of high schoolers statewide.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto stressed that the first-quarter grades should be seen as progress reports and not year-end evaluations.

“It is too early to be saying what the full impact is in terms of learning loss,” she said Wednesday morning in a live interview with Hawaii News Now.

But she called getting more students back into the classroom a high priority. “We are seeing that there are a number of students who are not successful through distance learning,” she said.

That data showed 23% of all elementary age students, or roughly 12,000 kids, were behind grade level in both English and math. Middle schoolers were struggling even more with 35%, or about 7,000 students, behind grade level in math, and 40%, or about 8,000 students, behind grade level in English.

“It is too early to be saying what the full impact is in terms of learning loss.” — Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

Teachers and students were forced to adjust to distance learning abruptly after spring break last year as the DOE closed schools to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The first quarter of this school year ran from Aug. 17 to Oct. 2. The DOE’s data dashboard, which is a snapshot of all grades recorded as of Oct. 21, also includes key metrics on things like student attendance, percentage of students accessing in-person learning, number of meals served and schools that have at least a 60-day supply of personal protective equipment.

The metrics were compiled at the request of the state Board of Education, which is trying to keep tabs on how the coronavirus situation has affected learning.

At the elementary grade level, where letter grades are not issued, 17% of students received a mark of “well below proficiency” in English while 10% received the same in math.

Meanwhile, 25,274 elementary school students, or one-third of them, did not receive a mark in English, and about the same proportion didn’t receive a score in math due to “insufficient evidence.”

Between one-quarter and a third of all high schoolers did not receive a grade in math, English, science and social studies for the same reason.

“It was surprising to see so many students didn’t have grades recorded this first quarter,” said Cheri Nakamura, director of He’e Coalition, an education advocacy group. “We don’t know what it tells us about distance learning because we don’t have the data.”

A large percentage of high school students didn’t receive grades in English or math in school complex areas like Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena and Kau-Keaau-Pahoa on the Big Island, and Campbell-Kapolei on Oahu.

The DOE Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design seemed to anticipate that some schools would be unable to adequately measure student progress before the first quarter ended.

Waianae Intermediate, part of the Nanakuli-Waianae complex area, has historically struggled with a high rate of chronic student absenteeism. 

A Sept. 24 memo said teachers should evaluate students based on “multiple opportunities to provide evidence,” “frequency of demonstrated proficiency” and “preponderance of evidence,” among other things.

The DOE memo told elementary school staff that if there isn’t enough information to score a child, a teacher should write “Not Applicable,” but that “a grade must be recorded at the end of the school year.”

According to the DOE data dashboard, 26% of all DOE students, or 40,660 students, are still in full distance learning mode. Just a small percentage of students have elected to return to in-person learning full-time, from 2% of high school students, or 973 students, to 14% of elementary school students, or 10,600 students, although that depends on the availability of in-person instruction at this time.

The DOE has left it up to the school complex area leaders and principals to decide whether and to what extent to bring students back to the classroom, creating further confusion and inconsistency.

Other metrics showed that 18% of all students, or 28,375, were at high risk of chronic absenteeism as of the first quarter.

The DOE issued updated school attendance procedures in October due to the change in learning due to the pandemic. Being absent in a distance learning environment means not being virtually present using a camera or microphone or participating in a required check-in.

According to the dashboard, an elementary student needs to check in once per day while daily attendance for secondary students is measured based on attendance for the majority of their courses that day.

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