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Learning Loss: Students In 3 Denver Metro School Districts Had More Failing Grades During Pandemic

(CBS4) - A CBS4 Investigation is uncovering the academic toll the pandemic has taken on middle school and high school students across the Denver metro area. More than half of seventh and eighth grade students in the Adams 14 School District, in Commerce City, failed last fall during remote learning - and that's just one example of the learning loss students experienced in several districts.

CBS4 Investigates obtained failing grades data from six school districts in the metro area. The numbers show overall, middle schoolers in all districts were more adversely affected by the pandemic than high schoolers - meaning middle schoolers tended to have poorer grades during the pandemic semesters than high schoolers.

The data shows students in Adams 14, Aurora, and Cherry Creek public schools did far worse in the fall 2020 - during the pandemic - than in the fall semester of 2019 - pre-pandemic.

Some other school districts had more lenient grading policies that led to fewer failing grades during the pandemic.

In Denver Public Schools, students had the option to receive "incomplete" grades instead of failing F grades, according to school officials. A spokesperson for the district said the policy was "a more equitable approach for students' varying circumstances."

CBS4 Investigates found during the 2020-2021 school year, DPS handed out nearly 42,000 incomplete grades and only a little less than 8,000 F grades -- a total of nearly 50,000 students who didn't pass. In the 2018-2019 school year, there were 50,031 students who received failing grades, showing students did about the same between pre-pandemic and pandemic years, and many students may have even spared their GPAs from falling further.

The data also shows DPS eighth graders got the most failing grades in 2020-2021, nearly 1,000 more than any of the other grades.

In the 2019-2020 school year, middle schoolers started to get more failing grades than the high schoolers once second semester started, when the pandemic hit. In the first semester of that year, pre-pandemic, high school students were doing worse. In prior years, high schoolers also got more failing grades than middle school students.

Azul Pedrosa, 13, of Denver, is one of the thousands of DPS middle schoolers who struggled to pass during the pandemic. She attends DSST Middle School Noel Campus.

Azul Pedrosa checking her grades online (credit: Kati Weis, CBS4)

"When COVID didn't exist, I was doing very well, I was understanding what the teachers were trying to teach me, but when COVID began, my grades, they were very bad," Pedrosa said. "I was trying as hard as I could to get them back up to where they used to be in 2019."

When CBS4 Investigates interviewed her in May, she was proud to have raised her failing grade in math up to a C grade.

Pedrosa's father, Christofer Cruz, worries she isn't ready to move on to the eighth grade.

"I feel like we should restart the full year," Cruz said. "I feel like we lost a lot of time where they could have learned certain things you need to learn before you can pass on to the next grade, you know, you can't learn to add and subtract if you don't learn the numbers first."

DPS sent CBS4 a written statement about its pandemic grading policy, explaining:

"Since the start of the pandemic, we have remained flexible and responsive with our grading policies. We heard from many students and teachers the importance of remaining as equitable as possible. This year, students have the option to receive an incomplete grade and work to gain credit recovery without negatively impacting their GPA. The district is focused on accelerating learning and giving students opportunities to demonstrate core competencies. This allows us to honor the hard work many students have put into earning their grades, remain flexible in what we know has been a challenging year for all and focus on what is most important for student learning and social emotional well-being."

For information about the district's plans for the upcoming school year, click here.

'Our Students Struggled, We Are Not Surprised': A Breakdown Of Staggering Failing Grades Data In Adams 14, Aurora, And Cherry Creek Public Schools

In Adams 14 and Aurora Public Schools, there was a different story.

Those districts had some of the highest percentages of failing students during the fall semester of 2020 in comparison to the other more affluent districts like Cherry Creek Public Schools.

From sixth through 11th grades, 30% or more of students in each grade in Adams 14 were failing during the fall 2020.

Of the eighth graders, 69% were failing in fall 2020 compared to only 33% failing in the fall of 2019, and 58% of the seventh grade was failing in fall 2020, compared to only 24% in fall 2019.

Here are some of the other statistics noted in Adams 14:

  • 6th grade: 49% failing in fall 2020, 16% failing in fall 2019, 14% failing in fall 2018, 13% failing in fall 2017
  • 7th grade: 58% failing in fall 2020, 24% failing in fall 2019, 27% failing in fall 2018, 27% failing in fall 2017
  • 8th grade: 69% failing in fall 2020, 33% failing in fall 2019, 28% failing in fall 2018, 27% failing in fall 2017
  • 9th grade: 35% failing in fall 2020, 14% failing in fall 2019, 25% failing in fall 2018, 24% failing in fall 2017
  • 10th grade: 32% failing in fall 2020, 13% failing in fall 2019, 23% failing in fall 2018, 15% failing in fall 2017
  • 11th grade: 30% failing in fall 2020, 15% failing in fall 2019, 20% failing in fall 2018, 18% failing in fall 2017
  • 12th grade: 22% failing in fall 2020, 13% failing in fall 2019, 14% failing in fall 2018, 17% failing in fall 2017

"Makes me sad," said Rafael Bautista, a parent with three children in Adams 14, in an interview with CBS4 translated from Spanish. "When there is a system that is actually blocking the natural learning process of a child, I think that we need to do something."

Bautista says in his son's bilingual program, both third and fourth graders are together in one classroom.

"The principal told me all he could do is have two grades in one classroom, because he didn't have the budget for another teacher," Bautista said.

He's also worried for his oldest daughter, who just graduated this year.

"I just hope that when she starts her first year of college, I hope she's not lacking academic preparation," Bautista said.

Adams 14 admits some elementary programs have two grade levels in one classroom, but says each grade is meeting grade-level standards.

Regarding the higher percentage of failing grades, school officials say they are developing several plans to get kids back on track, including extending summer school hours and bringing in math and literacy coaches during the fall semester. Click here for more information about the summer learning program.

"We are confident in our ability to be able to transition swiftly from remote learning to in person, and that we were able to really focus on the essential learning components, and that we are able to change focus on students to prepare them for whatever their next school year was going to look like, whether it was graduation for seniors or incoming freshmen, or our students that may be entering into first grade from kindergarten," said Adams 14 Chief Academic Affairs Officer Shelagh Burke.

Burke says the district will also adjust the master schedule for middle schoolers so they can have tutoring during the day, rather than having to take tutoring after school and be forced to choose between extra-curricular activities and their academics. Click here for more information about the upcoming school year.

In Aurora Public Schools, nearly 47% of the 7th grade was failing in fall 2020, compared to only 34% in fall 2019.

The numbers in other grades were also staggering:

  • 6th grade: 45.6% failing at least one course in fall 2020, 30.7% failing in fall 2019, 25.6% failing in fall 2018, 23% failing in fall 2017
  • 7th grade: 46.6% failing in fall 2020, 33.7% failing in fall 2019, 33.8% failing in fall 2018, 31.1% failing in fall 2017
  • 9th grade: 33.3% failing in fall 2020, 22.1% failing in fall 2019, 21.5% failing in fall 2018, 18.7% failing in fall 2017
  • 10th grade: 33.9% failing in fall 2020, 24.5% failing in fall 2019, 24.7% failing in fall 2018, and 19.8% failing in fall 2017
  • 11th grade: 33.5% failing in fall 2020, 25.3% failing in fall 2019, 20.5% failing in fall 2018, 20.1% failing in fall 2017
  • 12th grade: 29.5% failing in fall 2020, 20% failing in fall 2019, 17.3% failing in fall 2018, 16.2% failing in fall 2017

"Our students struggled this year, we are not surprised by that," said APS Superintendent Rico Munn. "We dramatically changed how students learn and how we taught, and we had to recalibrate, how we go through that educational process, and that's been a difficult challenge."

Aurora Public Schools generic sign
(credit: CBS)

Munn says the district is using federal money to help students get back on track.

"They'll be getting heightened levels of support, everything from what you've heard of high-dose tutoring to also increased extra learning opportunities, that might be summer school, or weekend school at times, or intervention blocks," Munn explained.

The failure rates also increased in Cherry Creek Public Schools during the fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, but not as much as in Aurora and Adams 14.

CBS4 Investigates previously reported about CCSD parents' concerns about the fall 2020 hybrid model, which some parents felt was inadequate.

Here are the district-wide failing grades statistics for CCSD:

  • 6th grade: 5.50% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 2.89% in fall 2019
  • 7th grade: 6.30% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 3.91% in fall 2019
  • 8th grade: 8.57% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 5.57% of courses failed in fall 2019
  • 9th grade: 11.36% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 7.61% in fall 2019
  • 10th grade: 10.97% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 7.45% in fall 2019
  • 11th grade: 10.10% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 7.18% of courses in fall 2019
  • 12th grade: 9.48% of courses were failed in fall 2020, compared to 6.96% in fall 2019

A spokesperson for CCSD sent the following written statement to CBS4:

"With hybrid learning and periods of remote learning due to the virus, this was a challenging year for our high schoolers. We worked with teachers to extend deadlines for turning in assignments and to give grace to students where possible. We do not have final grades for the school year yet, so we do not know how student grades compare to last year. However, we do know that students will need extra support as they return to school next fall in a post pandemic world. We are planning wraparound supports for students that will support their academic endeavors as well as the mental health and social emotional needs. Our goal is to help all of our students realize their potential and thrive in school."

Boulder Valley Seeing Record Participation In Summer School

The Boulder Valley School District provided all grade letter data, showing the pandemic even had an effect on A students. In Boulder, there were less A grades in fall 2020 than fall 2019, and there were far less students in "advanced" during the pandemic than in other years.

Munn says he saw that affect on A students in Aurora, as well.

"All of our students missed out on opportunities for advanced learning, all of our students missed out for social and emotional support," Munn said.

Something encouraging, data in Boulder and Jeffco Public Schools suggest students started to do better once they returned to in-person learning in the spring this year.

In both Jeffco and Boulder, middle schoolers and high schoolers overall received fewer, or about the same, failing grades during the pandemic than in previous years.

Regardless, BVSD says it launched its "Catch Up Plan" in February for any student who may have fallen behind. The program provides tutoring for elementary and middle school students who needed literacy or math support and standardized testing preparation for high school students. BVSD also plans to accelerate its Strategic Plan initiatives in the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.

Boulder Valley School District School Bus
(credit: CBS)

Regarding its summer school program, a district spokesperson tells CBS4 the district is seeing the highest participation in summer school it has ever seen.

"This summer BVSD has enrolled students who need extra support at the elementary and middle school level in the Summer Learning Program, enrolling more students than ever before," the spokesperson wrote. "Summer learning has been reworked to provide both whole group and small group very specific targeted instruction to address the needs of students. For the first time, summer school is free for all participants. This includes not only the cost of instruction but the cost of meals, after-school childcare for those who need it, and busing for students to live outside of the walk area."

BVSD says it "is also covering the cost for any high school student who needs to recover graduation credits from failed courses, regardless of when the original course was taken, by offering enrollment in the BVSD Online Program over the summer."

Jeffco Public Schools will also offer several summer programs for all levels. For more information about its plans, click here.

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