FARGO — Some school administrators are careful not to attribute a recent dip in student achievement to the coronavirus pandemic, and though the cause is unclear, data shows that failure rates among local students increased during the isolated months of virtual and distance learning.
As the world raced to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, public schools across the nation struggled to find ways to maintain an equitable education for all students. Instructional plans included total virtual learning, part-time distance learning, and eventually back to in-person learning, but with face masks, deep cleanings and social distancing.
Here in North Dakota and Minnesota, the struggle was no different than anywhere else. Finding the technology and internet access for every student was a monumental endeavor, according to Fargo Public Schools IT director Bill Westrick.
At the state level, North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said in February that about 28% of students who tested at grade level in 2019 for reading, writing and math fell below grade level after the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020.
In her testimony to state lawmakers, Baesler outlined potential responses that could include extending school calendars, boosting summer school attendance and providing additional tutoring during the school day and after school.
So far, however, a strategic plan directed at student achievement remains unclear, except to say one size doesn’t fit all schools.
Both virtual and hybrid students in Fargo Public Schools experienced a 0.6% decrease in reading proficiency and a 9.1% decrease in math between the winters of 2020 and 2021, said AnnMarie Campbell, a district spokeswoman.
At the middle school level, virtual and hybrid students experienced a 1.4% decrease in reading proficiency and a 10.3% decrease in math during the past year.
Statistics were based on specific assessments used at the elementary and middle school levels, Campbell said.
High school students experienced a 1.35% increase in overall failures when comparing this year’s first semester to the end of the last school year, Campbell said.
Superintendent Rupak Gandhi wouldn’t say that increased failures or lower test scores were because of the coronavirus pandemic, but he felt confident that students would be on track by the end of the school year.
"The tricky part of education is that unfortunately there are so many factors that go into successfully supporting students that we know, as a school district, we are doing everything we can,” Gandhi said. “So whether COVID is a factor or not, there are always times that we could have done better for some students and sometimes students are thriving under the educational environment that we are creating."
School administrators study data every year to decide which students the system is not working for and personalize interventions for those students.
“This year we have seen maybe a larger group of students that their data points will show are not as high as they were in previous years whether it’s grades or whether it’s an assessment,” Gandhi said. “But each school district, the whole team, and groups of teachers will have to take a look at every child through a variety of different data points and then figure out the appropriate intervention.”
Currently, there are no changes planned to the school year or to the district’s summer school program, which has opened up for enrollment, Campbell said.
In attempts to improve student performance in Fargo, elementary teachers are focusing on the social-emotional needs of students through daily proactive circles and therapeutic counseling, Campbell said.
Middle school teachers are providing interventions and extensions during advisory times within the school day. In high schools, start times were adjusted to allow teachers to provide interventions and extensions in all classes, Campbell added.
In West Fargo, elementary students saw a 6.9% decrease in reading and an 8.95% decrease in math during the pandemic months, according to Heather Leas, a district spokeswoman.
At the middle school level, both virtual and hybrid students experienced a 4.75% decrease in reading proficiency and a 8.37% decrease in math since the winter of 2020, Leas said.
High school students in West Fargo have had a 9.76% increase in overall failures when comparing the end of the first semester this year to the end of last school year.
In West Fargo high schools, about 24% of hybrid students failed at least one course in comparison to about 40% of virtual learning students, Leas said.
Allen Burgad, West Fargo's secondary assistant superintendent, said the greatest decline seemed to come from students enrolled in full-time distance learning. “While we are unable to speak for what other districts have experienced, we can confirm that WFPS experienced a decline in the grades of some students during the pandemic,” Burgad said.
To address the decline, the district has established intervention systems that include summer school, and has attempted to meet the social-emotional needs of students.
“The purpose of these additional supports is to assist students in achieving success in all of their courses, which is why the supports offered vary depending on the needs of the student,” Burgad said.
Moorhead Area Public Schools did not have data available to show student achievement during the coronavirus pandemic because the district had no spring testing, said Brenda Richman, a district spokeswoman.
“There is no doubt that education looks very different during the pandemic and this can be difficult for both students and educators alike,” Superintendent Brandon Lunak said. “Some students have thrived during distance and hybrid learning, others have struggled. We know that often our most at-risk students have been most negatively impacted by the absence or reduction of face-to-face learning time."
Like Fargo and West Fargo, Moorhead administrators have taken “considerable steps” toward individualized student support throughout the pandemic months.
“We identified high school students that were struggling to pass core classes and created a program to provide specific support. We have seen success as enrolled students have made progress and earned credit toward graduation,” Lunak said.
Moorhead Area Public Schools intends to extend normal summer school programming to provide more student support and address achievement gaps as well as reduce learning regression that typically occurs during the summer months, Richman said.
The district’s summer school plans fall in line with Gov. Tim Walz’s “Due North Education Plan,” which reported that the pandemic has illuminated disparities in education across the state along racial and geographic lines.