As Tempe Union High School District began a new semester last week in all-virtual mode, teachers and administrators continued to address the learning gap that has emerged since the pandemic disrupted classroom instruction.
That slippage was discussed at the final meeting of the old Tempe Union Governing Board last month as the first semester of 2020-21 – marked by only a month of a limited student presence in classrooms – wound down.
“We’re concerned. We’re very very concerned,” Superintendent Kevin Mendivil told the board as he and his aides discussed learning loss that has emerged over the last nine months of 2020.
“This is a less than ideal situation for all school districts,” he said. “Tempe Union is not alone.
“I have often spoken with my colleagues in our sister districts of the East Valley and in Central Phoenix and they’re all struggling with this – everybody is. So, we’re not unique to our little area of the town. We recognized there would be learning gaps and (the need) to begin addressing them sooner rather than later and we have been doing that.”
That gap was measured both by comparing results of proficiency test results administered in the first quarters of 2019 and 2020 as well as failing grades in those two quarters and the second quarter of the current school year.
Across the district, the latter data sets showed a third or more of students failing in English Language Arts, math, science and social studies.
Mendivil cautioned the data on failing grades for the second quarter of this school year was not complete since there a couple of weeks remained at the time the data were compiled.
He also said, “The Fs are not static. There’ll be a point where they are, but right now the Fs are going to be – it’s very mobile. They were different a week ago. They were different two weeks ago and so they won’t be static because we will continue with the ongoing support.”
The data showed that between the first quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of this school year:
• Failing grades at Desert Vista High School went from 2 percent to 13 percent and at Mountain Pointe from 7 percent to 23 percent. Compadre, Tempe High and Marcos De Niza posted far greater increases.
• Failing grades district-wide tripled to 30 percent in English among freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
• In math district-wide, Fs in Algebra 1 – generally a freshman course – went from 12 percent to 40 percent. Failures rose from 14 percent to 30 percent in geometry, usually a sophomore course.
• Failures quadrupled in the social studies areas of American and Arizona history, economics, federal and state government and world history and geography and tripled in biology and integrated science.
Mendivil said that while the administration and teaching staff are addressing struggling students and trying to “maintain trajectory for graduation for all students,” the top priorities are freshmen and seniors.
He said seniors have only this semester to “make up any deficiencies or credits that they all need to have for graduation day come in May.”
As for freshmen, he said, “We want to start them off successfully as well and capture any or mitigate support for them early on so they don’t get down the road in their junior and senior years and they’re behind.”
At the same time, he stressed, the district is trying to also address all students’ social and emotional needs – which have become an even greater cause for concern among all educations nationwide as a result of the isolation and disruptions in typical school life wrought by the pandemic.
Mendivil noted that in the final quarter of 2019-20, students – particularly seniors – caught a break because the state Department of Education provided “very clear guidance and latitude to hold students harmless” and allowed “flexibility with grading practices to prioritize opportunities for students to improve their grades.”
As the debate over open and closed classrooms has raged since September throughout many East Valley school districts – particularly Tempe Union, Mesa Public Schools, Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified – parents and students arguing for open campuses frequently have cited failing grades from virtual learning.
Tempe Union is the first district in the region to publicly present hard data on that learning loss among students.
Part of the problem with the widening learning loss is that an undetermined number of Tempe Union students are not even engaged in online instruction.
“We’re trying to get those students on campus for support,” Mendivil said of both students with failing grades and those who apparently are not engaged in online learning.
“We have been doing that the entire semester, actually,” he added. “We want to continue to identify the support, the social-emotional support that …that they may have.”
In some cases, he said, the district is calling and even making visits to the homes of those students who for all intent and purposes have dropped out.
He also indicated that addressing struggling students is a months-long effort and that the last thing the district wants to do is penalize students.
“We’re going to continue this process of the interventions,” Mendivil said. “It’s ongoing. This isn’t something you do in an isolated weekend or a couple of weeks…This summer is going to look very, very different. All of our school sites will be providing some sort of support during summer education academy. All seven sites will be open to make sure that we hone in on those students who may have lost out a little bit and we need to provide that support so that they can get back on track.”
He also said that while some of the percentages of failures “can be overwhelming,” he saw a chance where “we can experience some immediate success potentially when we focus on that kid who may have not engaged quite as much.”
He said teachers can change many students’ grades if they complete assignments, retake tests or follow “whatever the intervention or circumstance that the teacher and the family and the students have agreed upon.”
“We find those students can easily turn that grade back into a passing or better and that’s the focus from here forward,” Mendivil added.