Education

All Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) students struggled while learning remotely early this school year. But low-income students, students of color and students learning English experienced the greatest increase in failing grades, data obtained by WFPL News shows.

Educators, activists and parents said that’s because of the additional barriers they face while participating in nontraditional instruction, or NTI. The trend in failing grades shows the pandemic may have made it harder for JCPS to achieve its goal of closing the achievement gap between students who have certain advantages and those who don’t.

Even in-person, low-income, Black, Latinx, Indigenous and immigrant students were more likely to receive a failing grade than their white and socioeconomically-advantaged peers. After JCPS moved to remote teaching via video conference in response to the coronavirus pandemic, those gaps grew.

In the first term of fall 2019, about 15% of about 92,000 JCPS students received a failing grade. During the same time period in 2020, while students were learning remotely, nearly a quarter had at least one failing grade. 

Most groups of students, including white and middle- and upper-income students, saw a sharp increase in failing grades during the first six weeks, or first grading term, of the 2020-2021 school year, according to a WFPL News analysis. 

But for low-income students and many students of color, the spike in failing grades was even greater.

This analysis looks only at first-term grades, not students’ final grades for the semester. District staff said students had opportunities to bring up their grades before they became final on January 15.

 

Tyra Walker, a Black longtime JCPS educator and parent, said she wasn’t surprised by the growing gap. She’s also an organizer in Louisville’s movement for racial justice. 

“There are so many factors that play into why our kids are failing at a higher rate,” Walker said, noting that many low-income students and students of color have parents who are still working outside the home in essential but low-wage jobs.

Walker said she wasn’t sure if her children would fully participate in online learning “if I wasn’t here to be on them every day, ‘Sit down here at the table, you’re going to do your work right here where I can see you.’”

But even having a guardian at home isn’t always enough. Walker, who works from home most of the time, sometimes has difficulty getting a 12-year-old niece she cares for to complete her assignments. 

The increase in failing grades at JCPS schools is part of a larger national trend. Districts across the country are reporting similar surges in the failure rate as students struggle with online learning.

Existing Gaps Are Growing

JCPS students from low-income families saw the biggest jump in failing grades. This was especially true in middle school. 

In 2019, 12.8% of low-income middle school students received a failing grade. In 2020, that figure grew nearly five times to 59.2%. 

The failure rate rose for their middle- and upper-income peers as well, but not as much. That means the existing academic gap between low-income students and their peers became even wider.

The gap also grew significantly for students learning English, also known as English Language Learners (ELL). From the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, the failure rate for ELL middle school students nearly doubled to 58.2%. 

For all student groups, middle schoolers saw the biggest increase in failing grades. 

Nathan Meyer, JCPS Assistant Superintendent of School Turnaround, said even in normal times the transition from elementary school to middle school is difficult, as students go from having one or two teachers to having many more teachers, class periods and responsibilities. 

Meyer said middle school students are now doing what was already “the most vulnerable transition,” but in a remote setting.

Failing grades increased for ELL high school students as well, from about half in 2019 to nearly 72% in 2020.

While students of all races and ethnicities saw an increase in the failure rate, the hike was most significant for Black, Latinx and Indigenous students.

In middle school, the failure rate for Black students tripled and for Latinx students it increased fivefold. More than half of Black, Latinx and multiracial high school students had a failing grade in the fall of 2020, compared to 39% of white students.

JCPS Pinning Hopes On A Return To In-Person Learning

Asked how the district plans to address the worsening disparities, JCPS Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman pointed to a much-hoped-for return to in-person learning.

“It’s sickening to me to look at that,” Coleman said of the data on the growing gaps in the failure rate. But she called it an “opportunity” to “think completely differently” about school when students return to the classroom. She said the district is working on guidance for teachers on how to catch students up once they return, which could be as soon as March for elementary schools.

District leaders have few concrete answers when it comes to how the district is adjusting to address the current challenges. Adding any in-person opportunities, even for small groups of high-need students, is off the table until staff are vaccinated. 

“We have not felt that we could do that safely,” Coleman said.

The state and the county are in the midst of a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Jefferson County has an infection rate more than double what health experts say is “critical,” signifying uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. 

Coleman pointed to the addition of a free widely-available online tutoring service, as well as several online clubs schools have created to get students more engaged. And she said JCPS is also encouraging teachers to give students more chances to show they have learned the material; for example, they may let students redo assignments. 

“One of the things that’s been a real learning curve for the adults… is we can’t have a rigid structure or schedule and penalize kids if they don’t show up, or if they can’t,” she said, noting that many students are now working full-time to help support their families.

But this is a big paradigm shift for many teachers. Plus, not all students take these opportunities and not all are able to demonstrate mastery on a second try. 

Then there are the students who are not participating.

“If they’re just not there, that is the toughest thing to solve,” Coleman said.

The district touts an overall daily participation rate of 90.4% for the first semester. But students can be counted as having “participated” for a wide range of interactions, from being online for a web session to turning in an assignment to a simple email or text from a student or parent.

“It’s very loose,” Coleman said. “The way we officially have to account for participation is maybe not what any of us would really want when we say full participation.”

No matter the cause of the failing grade, each one carries consequences. That means low-income, ELL students and students of color could fall even further behind their more-advantaged peers.

The dent a failing grade puts in high school students’ GPAs can affect their chances of getting into college, the military or trade school, or of participating in sports and extracurriculars. In middle and elementary school, failing grades can impact a student’s chances of getting into a gifted and talented program with a more rigorous curriculum. 

These are opportunities that low-income students and students of color are already less likely to access. Now, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on their grades could put these opportunities even further out of reach.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.