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New data show more San Diego Unified School District students are failing or receiving ‘in progress’ grades

Protesters with the Reopen SDUSD parent group rally Oct. 27 outside the San Diego Unified School District headquarters.
Protesters with the Reopen SDUSD parent group rally Oct. 27 outside the San Diego Unified School District headquarters, demanding that schools reopen for in-person learning. The group recently filed a public record request that produced additional data about high school grades issued this fall.
(File)

Parents’ group points out that 1,000 more high school students failed a course this fall than at the same time a year earlier.

New San Diego Unified School District data show that 1,000 more high school students failed at least one class this fall compared with a year earlier.

About 26 percent of high school students failed at least one class at the end of the first quarter this school year, compared with 21 percent around the same time last school year, district data show.

San Diego Unified is one of many districts across the country experiencing an increase in failing and struggling students. The COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures have made it difficult for many students to learn or access school remotely, and many students’ mental health is suffering, parents and advocates say.

The new data, which came to light from a public record request by a parent watchdog group, adds another layer to some grade information that SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten announced at a recent school board meeting.

SAN DIEGO UNIFIED GRADES OVER TIME

Marten said that fewer high school students are failing or are at risk of failing — meaning they received at least one D or F grade — than at the same time last school year. Marten said 40 percent of high school students received at least one D or F, down from 47 percent a year earlier.

“Because of the hard work of teachers and students and parents, we didn’t have the kind of drop-off in grades that I think a lot of us were fearing,” San Diego Unified board President Richard Barrera said in an interview Dec. 29.

Reopen SDUSD, the parent group that filed the record request, has been calling for the district to serve more students in person and has been critical of the district in other matters, such as its public comment practices.

The group argues that the grading statistic Marten chose to report — which reflects a decrease in the percentage of students failing or at risk of failing — obscures the fact that more students are failing.

“These are kids that have not failed classes in the past, so something is happening in this format that is causing them to fail,” said Emily Diaz, a parent who filed the record request on behalf of Reopen SDUSD.

Marten shared only some grade data. Information for various student groups was missing, as were grades for middle school students, who have not yet finished their first semester.

But Marten did acknowledge during the board meeting that students are getting more F grades and said the rise in failing grades was a concern.

According to the new data, F grades now make up 16 percent of all grades given to high school students, up from 7 percent during the fall of last school year.

F grades are surging at the same time high school students are taking fewer courses than they were last school year. High school students switched to the quarter system this school year, meaning their courses are accelerated but they have half the course load.

Diaz said she is concerned that students are failing more courses at the same time they’re taking fewer of them.

“If you have only three courses, chances are less you’re going to get an F, whereas if you have six, your chances are higher,” she said.

Diaz said San Diego Unified’s surge in failing students is a result of schools remaining closed for in-person instruction.

“It’s clear that there are a lot of kids that are struggling, and if the district is choosing to stay closed, then they really need to look at other options to help struggling students,” Diaz said.

Barrera said the district has always had ways of supporting struggling students, but the depth of learning loss and the social-emotional struggles caused by the pandemic mean the district needs to deploy more resources than usual to help students.

“The concern is that we have students who are falling so far behind that there will need to be significant work to catch those students up if they’re going to be able to graduate on time,” Barrera said.

The new data also show an increase in “in progress” grades issued — 1,230 this fall, compared with only 12 a year earlier and three the year before that.

“In progress” grades mean a student needs more time beyond the end of a grading period to “demonstrate the competency necessary to earn course credit,” according to the district’s grading policy.

Marten said at the board meeting that the district wants teachers to issue more “in progress” and “incomplete” grades to give students more time to master course content.

In October, the school board approved a new grading policy that is meant to give students more retakes or other chances to learn from their errors and improve their grades, rather than immediately giving students a failing grade that is difficult to recover from.

Diaz said San Diego Unified should be increasing the number of students it serves in person.

Though district campuses are closed, it has been serving small groups of students with high needs in what it calls its Phase 1 of reopening.

As of mid-December, fewer than 1,900 students, or 2 percent, were participating in Phase 1. That’s down from about 3,000 students in mid-November.

District officials initially said as many as 12,000 students would qualify for Phase 1.

Barrera said the number of students being served in Phase 1 is disappointingly low and it’s likely that both students and teachers are choosing not to participate because of the current COVID-19 surge.

On Dec. 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $2 billion incentive plan to encourage California schools to reopen for some elementary students as early as mid-February, an effort that would fund frequent coronavirus testing for students, teachers and staff.

But San Diego County’s coronavirus case rate is still too high to allow schools to reopen. If the county’s rate decreases enough, it’s unclear whether San Diego Unified will accept the incentive and reopen.

First, the district will want to know when teachers will be able to get vaccinated, Barrera said.

“We think if there’s a possibility over the next six weeks we get all educators who would be on campus vaccinated, that will make a big difference in our ability to open up and stay open,” he said.

Newsom’s plan is expected to be submitted to the Legislature as an adjustment of the state budget for the current fiscal year. The Legislature reconvenes Monday, Jan. 11.

The plan prioritizes returning students in kindergarten through second grade to the classroom, as well as those with special instructional needs.

The remainder of elementary school students could return as early as March. It remained unclear when older students would return to campuses.

All staff and students who return to school would be required to wear masks.

Parents will still have the option to keep their children learning from home even if their schools reopen.

Before Newsom’s announcement, the state was not allowing schools to reopen if their county was in the most restrictive purple tier of the state’s reopening framework.

Counties in the purple tier, including San Diego County, have a seven-day average of daily coronavirus cases higher than seven per 100,000 residents. But now, schools can reopen if their county has a case rate below 28. Districts also don’t need to wait for the county to stay out of the purple tier for two weeks before reopening.

However, as of the weekly report Dec. 29, San Diego County’s adjusted case rate was 38.1 per 100,000 residents.

— The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.


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