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Maryland schools report surge in failure rates for second quarter

Maryland has seen a surge in students getting failing grades in key courses for the second quarter amid the pandemic.
Maryland has seen a surge in students getting failing grades in key courses for the second quarter amid the pandemic. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Failure rates surged in Maryland schools during the second quarter, with new data showing percentages doubling or tripling in key classes in most of the state’s 24 school districts.

The numbers are another sign of the academic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 540,000 lives in the United States and shuttered some schools for as long as a year.

With school systems reeling as never before, many students have been learning virtually for all or much of the past year. In Maryland, attendance numbers are down, but course grades provide a far more alarming picture of how students are faring.

The data offered a year-to-year look at failing course grades in math, English, science and social studies for the second quarter, which runs from November to January. In each category, roughly two-thirds of school systems saw failure rates double, triple or increase even more for middle and high school students.

State officials described their findings as a reflection of pandemic learning but warned that the data was imperfect and not standardized. Grades are sometimes influenced by participation, classwork or attendance, rather than objective learning.

“We wanted to do the best that we could to take a look at student learning across the state,” said Dara Shaw, executive director of the state education department’s office of research, speaking at a meeting Monday of the State Board of Education.

Shaw highlighted the example of middle school English: This year, nine school systems reported having failure rates of 20 percent or more for the second quarter. Last year, no school system reached 20 percent.

In the state’s two largest school systems, located in the Washington suburbs, failing grades have already been drawing concern.

Prince George’s County, with about 132,000 students, showed a sharp increase in the percentage of students failing at least one core subject in the second quarter.

Nearly 16 percent of Prince George’s elementary students failed at least one second-quarter class this year, up from about 5 percent last year, according to school system data.

Similarly, 45 percent of middle-schoolers had a failing course grade for the second quarter, compared with nearly 22 percent last year. For high school students, this year’s 43 percent was up from 33 percent in 2020, the data showed.

Monica Goldson, chief executive of Prince George’s County Public Schools, said pandemic school has been a challenge in the state and across the country.

“Virtual learning clearly has its limits,” she said in a statement. “That is particularly true for students with special needs, our English learners and those from families who are economically disadvantaged.”

Goldson said Prince George’s is using its data to better support English learners and African American middle and high school students, while also looking at one-on-one literacy and math tutoring, summer interventions, and high school instruction paced to individual needs.

Neighboring Montgomery County, with more than 161,000 students, has not yet completed an analysis of second-quarter data, officials said.

It previously released first-quarter data showing that failing grades in math and English jumped as much as sixfold for some of the system’s most vulnerable students.

Failing grades double and triple — some rising sixfold — amid pandemic learning

More than 36 percent of ninth-graders from low-income families, for instance, failed the first marking period in English. That compares with less than 6 percent last year, when the same students took English in the eighth grade.

Montgomery school officials said Monday that they remain concerned about the failure rates for many middle and high school students, noting the “tremendous impact” of the pandemic on performance and social and emotional well-being.

Adjustments have been made to improve the student-teacher experience, promote student well-being and ensure student progress, they said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the data and make appropriate adjustments to support our students and staff,” they said.

As state board members asked questions Monday, state officials were not able to correlate learning models — virtual or hybrid, for example — with the rise in failing grades. Many Maryland school systems have switched from hybrid to virtual and back again.

Maryland researchers and others across the country are eager to better understand the correlation, said State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon. “I think it is going to be very imperative for us to find the answers to those questions as we move forward,” she said.

Lori Morrow, a state board member from Prince George’s, said she was not surprised by the poor results, given the pandemic, but pointed to the difficult work being done by teachers, students and parents.

“Winter was hard, and I hope as we’re moving into spring — as more of our districts are reopening — that we really see a significant change in third quarter,” she said. But she said she also hopes districts are focused on students’ social and emotional struggles.

Back in school buildings: One district’s experience in 10 weeks

Many school systems told state officials that they were targeting students in need of special support or implementing grouping strategies to get at specific needs. Some were purchasing new assessments, reviewing curriculums or reassigning support staff.

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