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Thousands of Tucson students failing at 'alarming rate' during COVID-19
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Thousands of Tucson students failing at 'alarming rate' during COVID-19

Instructional models, financial troubles among struggles cited

In Tucson Unified School District’s middle school grades, the number of F’s has increased by 67% over last year.

Thousands of Tucson students are failing classes while dealing with remote learning and the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Tucson Unified, with more than 42,000 children, there is an “alarming rate of F’s” especially in middle and high schools, said TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo.

As the first semester of the 2020-21 school year comes to an end, the number of F’s is up by nearly 50% over last year in TUSD secondary grades, from about 6,400 failing grades last year to nearly 9,600 now.

In the middle school grades, the number of F’s has increased by 67% over last year, and in high school there was a 38% increase, with 4,232 F’s in middle school compared to 2,538 last year, and 5,355 F’s in high school compared to 3,886 last year.

In Sunnyside, Tucson’s second-largest district with more than 14,000 students, there was a 47% failure rate in high school classes at the end of the first quarter, as compared to 29% last year and 23% the year before that.

That is the percentage of F’s given out, not the percentage of students failing. In terms of individual students, 61% of students at Desert View High are failing at least one class and 63% at Sunnyside High.

In both high schools, about half of students are failing at least two classes, and 38% of students are failing either or both English and math — classes required to graduate.

The failure rate in Sunnyside middle schools has also increased substantially with 28% of first-quarter grades being F’s, compared to 9% the previous two years.

“This is not a Sunnyside-only issue,” Superintendent Steve Holmes said during a Governing Board meeting on Dec. 8. “This has been an issue that has been plaguing the nation around the amount of F’s and students failing. Most of the districts across Pima County are seeing at least double what they normally have seen in the average. We’re no different.”

Flowing Wells schools saw about double the amount of F’s in the secondary grades at the October progress report. Vail students also had about double the number of F’s at 20% of grades across all grade levels. The number of middle and high school students who have one or more failing grade in Tanque Verde School District has more than doubled since last year as well. In the Sahuarita School District, the number of middle and high school students with a failing grade had climbed from 429 last year to 780, although those grades aren’t finalized and could change.

In an informal survey by the Star of teachers at district schools in Tucson, many teachers working remote and hybrid models said kids were failing because they are not attending or not turning in work.

Of the 74 educators who weighed in on whether more kids are failing this year, about 78% said yes, among all Tucson’s major school districts, regardless of whether the district is fully remote or has been doing hybrid in-person instruction.

Catalina Foothills and Marana didn’t say whether more students were failing this year, but survey respondents from those districts said they had many more students failing.

In Amphitheater, more students are struggling, and the district has directed teachers to change all zeros on assignments to 50%, a tactic being discussed in other districts and which teachers in other districts are already employing on their own.

“GRADING WITH GRACE”

One Amphitheater High School teacher who responded to the Star’s anonymous survey said the only reason she didn’t have more students failing than normal is because of “grading with grace.”

“I think we are doing a good job grading, but sometimes it seems as if grades don’t mean anything any more,” she wrote. “We are trying so hard to be ‘fair under the circumstances’ but it is a huge mess. Students who are out legitimately being quarantined, students whose parents are quarantining them from all in-person attendance, and those missing way more than is typical. It’s a mess that no one can answer, how we are supposed to handle the grades.”

One Amphi middle school teacher said if the grades were to accurately reflect student work and achievement, she would have 26 students failing, which is more than one-quarter of her caseload.

Another Amphi high school teacher said she fears this is a “lost year.”

“I’m incredibly distressed,” she wrote. “Kids are unmotivated, parents don’t know what to do with unmotivated kids/how to handle their ennui; teachers are exhausted from pushing the same boulder uphill for months.”

There is talk in many Tucson school districts about changing the grading system to either make it more lenient or find other ways to measure students’ understanding of core subjects while avoiding an F for poor attendance or missing work.

A handful of the teachers surveyed who said they don’t have more students failing said that is only because of lenient grading practices.

TUSD is working with the teachers union to find a solution that will “strike a balance between student accountability and teacher responsibility,” Superintendent Trujillo said, as well as making sure that there are interventions and communication with parents and more opportunities to raise grades.

Grading is the purview of the teacher, and teachers are considering the tough circumstances children are in, says Tucson Education Association President Margaret Chaney.

For students in eighth grade and high school, in cases where their grades could adversely impact scholarship opportunities and course eligibility, TUSD teachers may allow students to seek a “pass” grade as long as they earned a B, C or D in the class. The student would then have the opportunity to retake the class within a specified time frame to have the “P” grade replaced with a higher grade.

“I know that as a student, you might have access to everything but you may not be able to focus and concentrate like you normally would in a school setting,” she said. “You’ve got three other kids in the same room with you, and they’re all doing whatever it is that they’re doing. Or maybe a parent is sick, or maybe you’re about to get evicted. There’s so many possibilities right now. It is not a very bright world to be a child in.”

WHAT’S BEHIND the FAILING GRADES?

Teachers who took the Star’s survey said that students’ home environments are often not conducive to learning; there is often little or no parental support at home; the hybrid model lacks consistency; students lack self-management strategies; many students are watching siblings or taking care of sick family members; and many students seem depressed or unmotivated — all factors that contribute to more failing grades.

While TUSD worked to get all students access to online learning tools, they were still waiting on devices during the first three weeks of the school year, meaning students didn’t start the year off with the tools they needed. There was also a lack of clarity on reading expectations and workloads, Trujillo said.

“We can’t be making sweeping assumptions that kids are simply refusing to do work, nor can we make a sweeping assumption that sometimes our kids aren’t a little bit lazy and don’t want to log on,” Trujillo said during the Dec. 8 school board meeting. “We can’t make assumptions that students had everything that they needed with regard to technology, access to technology or Wi-Fi hot spots at the beginning of the school year.”

Some of the reasons Sunnyside officials identified for students struggling include: the switch to hybrid requiring students to change schedules and many older students have competing responsibilities.

At the high school level, some Sunnyside students went out and found low-wage jobs while their parents got laid off. Many high school students and even middle school students are caring for younger siblings and relatives. And they’ve had internet connectivity problems — even if the district was able to provide an internet connection and a device.

Many students are also tasked with doing classes on their own while their parents are at work. For example, in Sunnyside’s Apollo Middle School, more than 50% of students don’t have an adult with them during the day, and more than 50% are watching younger siblings, says Principal Thad Dugan.

Some students are in households that have lost all their income because of the pandemic, and some have had to move because of financial hardship, Dugan said during Sunnyside’s Dec. 8 Governing Board meeting.

“It’s almost a case-by-case basis, trying to get a hold of people, trying to get kids in the study hall,” he said.

STEPPING UP WITH INTERVENTIONS

Sunnyside is asking kids who are struggling to come in twice a week for in-person study hall, with the district providing transportation to the students who need it.

The district is also doing consistent outreach on attendance reports through calls to families, counselor outreach and making targeted home visits to students who are failing required classes or multiple classes.

Sunnyside also has a number of mental-health interventions and services that are being offered to students.

TUSD is also working on intervention techniques including a targeted academic support plan that will include identifying struggling students, small-group supplemental instruction, progress monitoring and written notification to parents.

After putting interventions into place, Sunnyside saw the failure rate drop from 47% to 35.6% in about a month among the district’s 4,300 high school students.

The district also plans to put some COVID-19 relief funds toward creating a more robust summer school. And grading right now needs to combine accountability and flexibility, Holmes said.

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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