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School failure rates during pandemic double, triple at some Houston-area districts

Middle and high school students who learned virtually generally failed at a higher rate than in-person students, a KHOU 11 analysis has found.

HOUSTON — School failure rates at some Houston-area districts doubled or even tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic, a KHOU 11 analysis of school data has found.

Across the 10 largest local school districts, 19 percent of middle and high school students failed at least one class in fall 2019. In the fall 2020 semester, the failure rate shot for secondary students rose to 32 percent.

Veronica Granados knows the struggles first hand.

“It’s been a heck of a year for everybody,” she said.

A year of anxiety, uneasiness and plenty of unknowns.

“Just the routine was so different and the learning was so different,” Granados said. “Teachers were trying to get the hang of it too, everybody was all over the place.”

Her two sons attend districts that struggled the most. The younger Abraham goes to Houston ISD where 51 percent of middle and high school students failed a class in fall 2020, up from 35 percent a year earlier. The older son Gerardo attends Aldine ISD where the failure rate tripled from 9 percent to 31 percent among secondary students.

Both boys started the school year learning virtually.

“They were getting behind, they were definitely getting behind,” Granados said. “They were trying to understand what they were teaching and trying to keep up, and they couldn't.”

Duncan Klussmann said he’s not surprised the numbers have gone up, given all the challenges and disruptions this school year. The clinical assistant professor at University of Houston College of Education is a retired local school district school superintendent.

“We’re seeing this as a national trend,” Klussmann said. “And we're seeing it mainly affect to a greater degree, low-income students, students with multiple languages in their home and then students who are virtual,” he said.

A KHOU 11 analysis found low-income students did fail at a higher rate than their peers in fall 2020, but the gap was similar to fall 2019.

Overall, both virtual and in-person students failed at a higher rate than the year before. But virtual learners struggled more with 37 percent failing at least one class, outpacing in-person students’ failure rate of 27 percent.

But there were some exceptions. HISD and Klein ISD were the only districts where a lower percentage of virtual secondary students failed a class compared to their on-campus counterparts.

“Technology has been a vehicle to allow our students to have personalized learning and our teachers to meet individual needs of students,” said Dayna Hernandez, Klein ISD’s associate superintendent for communications and public relations.

Records also show Klein fared among the  in the area’s largest districts. Its failure rate for middle and high school grew only 5-percentage points, from 15 percent in fall 2019 to 20 percent in fall 2020.

That relative success still comes with the reality that one-in-five students failed a class.

“The pandemic has been a roller coaster ride to the say the least,” Hernandez said. “Is there a COVID slide? I'm certain there is. Are we going to see the effects of it? I'm sure we have. Are we going to continue to focus on doing what's right by our students? Always.”

As the school year comes to an end, learning loss lingers on.

The question is for how long.

“I think we can catch up, it’s not going to take a one-year time frame, it’s going to take a 3-to-5-year time frame,” said Klussmann, the retired superintendent. “It’s going to take a long-term approach, and I think that’s what leaders need to be looking at right now.”

As for the Granados family, Veronica said both of her sons did better this spring after going back on campus. But the pandemic clearly took its toll.

“The gap is going to be there for a while,” Granados said. “It's going to take time and a lot of work to close that gap.”

Students may have to work harder in some subjects. Data provided by five of the 10 largest districts show students struggled the most in English.

It’s not the subject students usually struggle with the most. In Fall 2019, secondary students struggled with math the most and had a 9 percent failure rate, compared to 7 percent in English.

But in Fall 2020, that jumped 10 percentage points to 17 percent, with virtual learners failing at an even higher rate at 22 percent – nearly a quarter. It was even higher at individual districts – 39 percent at Aldine and 29 percent at HISD.

A spokesperson for the HISD provided the following statement regarding failure rates:

“HISD is aware and concerned about the learning loss that has resulted from the educational challenges caused by the pandemic. We know this has been very difficult time for students, parents, and teachers. The district is currently formulating plans that will mitigate students’ lost time and improve educational performance.

"With millions of dollars in government relief funds becoming available, we have a unique opportunity to address the impact COVID-19 has had – and continues to have – on elementary and secondary schools. We want the public’s input on how to utilize this funding. HISD hopes every family will participate in a survey that is posted at the top of the district’s website https://www.houstonisd.org/ so we can move forward together, mitigate student learning loss, and utilize resources effectively."

An Aldine ISD spokesperson provided the following statement:

“COVID has brought significant challenges to the learning landscape. Our teaching and learning teams and our school leadership office have worked hard to respond to the needs of our students. This includes immediate responses like hosting tutorials, Saturday school, night school, and other acceleration and remediation opportunities. Teachers have gone above and beyond to help close any gaps.

"We know that, for most students, being on campus and receiving face-to-face instruction provides the best learning experience. We’ve seen that social interaction with other students, caring teachers, counselors, and other campus leaders give students the structure, tools, and social-emotional support they need to be successful. With this in mind, we are working hard to ensure safety protocols are in place to ensure we can welcome as many students as possible back to our campuses this fall.”