No Vaccine Can Cure This: Pandemic Wreaks Havoc on Student Grades

NHHS is facing a problem. A record number of students from 9th-11th grade failed their classes last semester.

Thirteen percent of grades earned by 9th graders were F’s last semester, a 7% increase from the 2019-20 school year, Dr. Sean Boulton, NHHS principal, said at a student lunch meeting on Jan. 15th. A similar trend holds for 11th grade, with 10% of grades being F’s last semester, compared to 3% the previous year. 

Tenth-grade students fared slightly better, with only a 3% jump to bring the total percentage of F grades given sophomores at 10%.

Many of these students particularly struggled with science, math and English,  some of the classes that tend to have higher workloads. Looking at 9th grade in particular, “there were on average 90 F’s  in biology, algebra one. And in [Comp-Lit 1], there were about 60,” Boulton said.

The senior class saw a lower percentage of F’s distributed last semester than the semester before. Nonetheless, “[the school] saw a handful of seniors just completely disappear,” Boulton said. These students stopped attending their classes and extracurriculars altogether.

At the NMUSD Board of Education’s special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 26th, the district revealed that even elementary and middle school students have struggled to meet academic standards this year.

At the meeting, the district shared the results of the mid-year Acadience assessments, a set of literacy tests for kindergarten through 2nd-grade students from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. It is to note that the district-wide results were shown, rather than the results per school.

Kindergarten students did better this year than last, although by a small margin. 1st grade did significantly worse, with 34% of students performing well below standard, compared to just 26% last year. 2nd grade did not see a significant change in either direction.

The district also shared the results of the mid-year STAR assessment for 3rd-6th grade.

“Roughly 8-10% fewer students this year demonstrated their grade-level reading comprehension skills between last year and this year,” reported John Drake, Assistant Superintendent, Chief Academic Officer.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest reasons for this spike isn’t online learning. “The problem is that students are going through life experiences,” Boulton added. “We have students whose families are struggling, who are sick, who have to travel to take care of family, who are losing their businesses, who have COVID. [And] because of these variables, a lot of our students are struggling.”

Seniors and juniors also face these variables. However, they fared better because of their maturity.

“[They’re] not afraid of asking for help,” Boulton said. “[They’re] not afraid of advocating for [themselves].”

Plus, freshman and sophomore are still adjusting to high school life, which is a big jump intellectually and academically from middle school, Boulton pointed out.

Furthermore, since these variables are outside the control of students and families, the condition did not improve when students went back to in-person learning in November.

NHHS was “able to get help to more students because they were in seat,” Boulton said. “[But] there wasn’t a spike [in grades] because we came back.” 

Still, there was one positive of in-person learning: Newport Harbor realized how many students were struggling. They saw shifts in everything from “students’ facial expressions, moods, timeliness, to turning in work or showing up in a seat.”

That’s when the school “started realizing how many students were struggling,” Boulton reported.

As soon as the school and district realized the extent of the problem, they began implementing solutions. In December, using the funds provided by the district, NHHS hired tutors from UCI to provide free academic support to students. Students and parents can connect with these tutors by contacting the school administration.

“Also specifically [for] algebra one, biology, and Comp-Lit 1, [NHHS used the funds to run] support classes and remediation classes to help students that just flat out failed,” Dr. Boulton said.

Many elementary schools initiated after-school programs where teachers regularly touched base with their students. 

The district is also now encouraging elementary teachers to “know their students.” Teachers are asked to evaluate the progress of students regularly and modify their teaching plans accordingly to ensure continual learning and improvement. 

The district also wants to engage parents by giving them the tools they need to support and supplement their kids’ learning. The objective is not for the parents to replace the teacher or fill in gaps in learning, but rather to strengthen what the student has learned, said Charlene Metoyer, the board clerk and trustee for area two, at the Jan. 26th board meeting.

However, neither NHHS nor the district plan to change the grading system this year, as was done last spring by replacing D and F grades with Incompletes.

The Incomplete grade created a false safety net because “everyone saw Incomplete as a path to completing a course, no matter how much work you put in,” Boulton said. “It gave [students] this false sense of, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do anything.’”

Instead, this year, NHHS is encouraging teachers to be “flexible” with grading.

Looking forward, there is still a risk of last semester repeating itself. While schools and the district are trying to support students through additional classes or after-school meetings, life continues to play out. The variables that affected students last semester still exist.

What happens next cannot be said.