Failure rates rise for Austin ISD students, report reveals lasting consequences from pandemic

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Failure rates among Austin Independent School District secondary students are rising, according to data released by the district.

Around 40% of high schoolers are failing at least one class during the fourth six-week period of 2020-21, an increase of about 6% over the 2019-20 school year. The gap is even higher for middle schoolers: around a third are failing one or more classes, reflecting a 10% jump from the prior year.

Austin ISD failure rates for secondary students.

However, a new statewide report created by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed reveals a number of underlying factors may be contributing negatively to student report cards.

The organization used data collected from public information requests to state agencies and school districts, paired with the personal testimonies of Texas families, to paint a picture of disproportionate gaps in learning from underrepresented communities. The report highlights the struggles they’ve gone through since the pandemic’s inception in March 2020.

Among the headlines: more than 1.3 million Texas households were food insecure just three months ago, 67% of students couldn’t keep up with distance learning during the first year of the pandemic and 100 school districts across the state reported less than 75% engagement with their materials during the spring of 2020.

“The pandemic has really detrimentally impacted the whole child in so many ways,” said Andrew Hairston, the director of Education Justice for Texas Appleseed. “Kids weren’t logging on to the virtual learning capabilities, they weren’t in touch with their schools at all and a number of them fell through the cracks as a result.”

Clint Small Middle School Spanish teacher Shaun Hopkins can relate. He said he has a lot of students failing his class right now but explained it is not unique to his district.

The Round Rock Independent School District is also reporting higher-than-normal failure rates. About 20% of secondary students failed at least one or more courses during the fall 2020 semester. That’s up from about 10% in the 2019 fall semester.

Hopkins pointed to larger issues he’s seen firsthand, like instability at home, family financial struggles and a lack of internet connectivity.

“It’s not just the will of the child or do they want it enough. It’s also about the circumstances. It’s about, ‘what is that child dealing with right now? How are they trying to survive a pandemic?'” Hopkins said. “These struggles are just magnified when a student is coming from a low socio-economic status, when families are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, and all of these things are amplified. It’s becoming more difficult and that gap is being exposed.”

The report draws a number of conclusions, pushing for tangible change, that could lead to vast education reform.

“It will require a cultural change where we, as a society, identify what went wrong, evaluate systems, embrace responsibility, and activate the needed reform,” the report reads.

Some of the recommendations, specifically related to academics include:

  • Adopting a pass/fail grading system for all K-12 courses for the 2020-21 academic year
  • Tailoring school reopening plans to elevate the voices of low-income people and their families
  • Dedicating discretionary funding from the Texas Education Agency to alleviating the financial stress on low-income families
  • Suspending the 2021 STAAR Assessment
  • Working with the Federal Communications Commission to expand broadband access to every corner of the state

“We are calling on school districts and state policymakers to do those bold actions that are necessary in the moment,” Hairston said.

NOTE: The “Education Transformed: The K-12 Experience in Texas During the Coronavirus Pandemic” report covers a wide range of topics not discussed in this article, including exclusionary discipline and school policing.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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