Despite overall attendance uptick, more students of color failing, skipping school

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be widening achievement gaps for Portland's students of color.

Data shows that in Portland Public Schools, students of color are attending school less often and failing classes at two and three times the rate of their white peers.

For example, roughly 40% of Black and Latino high school students in PPS were receiving at least one non-passing grade during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, according to data provided by the school district.

Comparatively, nearly 15.5% of the district's white high school students were failing a class. The numbers were even higher—53%—for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.

Last spring, when the virus hit Oregon, the state ordered schools to close, moving all students to remote learning. The Oregon Department of Education stopped collecting attendance and schools recorded grades only on a pass/fail basis. This year, most students started school from home again, and most will remain in the distance learning model until at least February.

'Attendance' during remote learning

Unlike last year, students are being graded this year and attendance is being taken, but not in a traditional way.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero (right) kneels at a table alongside students at Bridger K-8 school during a January 2020 special activity with PGE staff. Distance learning has led to a lower percentage of students of color attending school regularly.In accordance with Oregon's Ready Schools, Safe Learners state guidelines for education amid a pandemic, students need only log on to a remote class, email or send a text message to their teacher once within a 24-hour period to receive credit for attending that day. The guidelines allow flexibility for families who may not have adequate internet access or may have other challenges with being present for a class during the same time each day.

Even with the relaxed guidelines, many student groups have seen a decline in regular attendance.

Within PPS, which serves more than 46,000 students, overall student attendance was up slightly among sixth through 12th graders during the first quarter of 2020. That hasn't been the case for the district's Native, Pacific Islander, Latino, or Black students. Raw average daily attendance data provided by the Oregon Department of Education shows an 11.6 percentage point gap in attendance between Native students and white students at PPS during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year. American Indian and Alaska Native students had the biggest drop-off in regular attendance. During the first quarter, only 54% attended online classes regularly, compared with 67% the year prior. For Latino students, regular attendance dropped by nine percentage points between 2019 and 2020. The district's Hawaiian, Black and Pacific Islander students saw regular attendance drop by seven percentage points between 2019 and 2020.

At neighboring Parkrose School District, state data shows attendance was higher among all student groups than at PPS. The same was true for David Douglas School District.

Middle and high schoolers with disabilities at PPS have shown a softer decline in regular attendance--65% versus 2019's 69%.

Berkeley Sherman, an eighth grader at Da Vinci Arts Middle School, said distance learning compounds some of the problems he already had to contend with.

"I have procrastination problems and it is easier to procrastinate," Sherman noted of learning from home. "Plus, lots of the work (is) harder digitally like math I have to show my work on." Berkeley's other observation? Sometimes the work feels too easy or regressive.

Sherman has autism and has an Individualized Education Plan. He said overall, he feels his needs are being met, but credits his mother for helping communicate with teachers.

The biggest slide in attendance was seen among PPS's migrant and English language learner students, who saw a 17% drop in attendance this year.

Dani Ledezma, senior adviser for racial equity and social justice at PPS, said for those students, the district has partnered with organizations like the Latino Network and Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) to help provide culturally specific support to families.

"That's what the research tells us, is that services that are culturally specific are going to be much more effective than generic programs," Ledezma told Pamplin Media Group over the summer. She said the district works with community agents to make sure educational content is understandable for parents and ensure translators are available for parent-teacher conferences.

Ledezma says parental involvement is "one of the biggest indicators of student success."

The attendance and failure rate issues were also found in neighboring suburban districts. In Tigard-Tualatin School District, only half of the district's Hispanic and Latino middle and high schoolers attended regularly during the first quarter of 2020.

In Hillsboro, the percentage of all high school students failing half or more of their classes during the first quarter of 2020-21 is at 26%, double what it was the prior year. The district is more diverse than its urban counterpart in Portland. In Hillsboro, 38% of students are Hispanic or Latino. Still, those students are failing at more than twice the rate of their white peers.

To the east, Reynolds School District reported only 30% of its high school students were "fully engaged" in school.

Ledezma and state leaders note that gaps in achievement among student demographic groups have been an issue long before the pandemic, but distance learning has exacerbated them.

"We've really tried to center on who are the students that experience significant barriers?" Ledezma noted. "We're all in the flood, but people have different boats."

In interviews with several Oregon school district leaders, some said attendance doesn't paint the whole picture. Schools instead rely more on assignment completion to gauge student performance.

PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - The COVID-19 pandemic has created barriers to teaching and learning. High school students in Portland Public Schools were failing at higher rates during the first quarter of 2020 than they did during the same time the year prior.But fall's 2020 high school fail rates show a larger proportion of students across all demographic groups in PPS are falling behind academically.

Jennifer Patterson is assistant superintendent with ODE's Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Patterson said Oregon's education gaps aren't new or unique.

"What we're finding and discovering both locally and nationally is this is not an Oregon issue," Patterson said. "There is a larger conversation around how are our children fairing and how do we know that? What are the indicators we can count on? When letter grades are being used and if students are not passing, what does that tell us about how do we, as educators, think differently and approach our practice in new ways … and how also do we use it as an indicator of what students might need that they don't' have?"

What Oregon doesn't track

While Oregon's school districts may be tracking student attendance and grades, the Oregon Department of Education does not.

Despite statewide initiatives like Every Day Matters, which emphasizes the importance of attending school every day for optimal outcomes, student attendance is only tracked at the school and district level.

ODE collects quarterly attendance records only for the purpose of allocating federal funding to districts, based on student enrollment, and publishing annual profile reports.

The state agency doesn't ask for periodic grade reports, instead relying on annual assessments to determine student achievement and success. That means problems lie with districts to identify and solve. Interventions must be deployed or coordinated at the local level.

Kristyn Westphal, an area senior director in PPS's Office of School Performance, says that often requires a nuanced approach.

Westphal said school psychologists meet and look at attendance data, to assess which students need extra support.

"They look at where do we have gaps, who have we not heard from in a long time? Who's showing up for class but not completing assignments?" Westphal noted. "They're considering a lot of things. A lot of kids have anxiety or depression. Some families are really overloaded and it's just too much to keep it straight in terms of the schedule. Some are dealing with loss and grief, so staff are really trying to problem solve on an individual level."

Federal aid sought

A recent report published by the Education Writers Association documented the achievement gap issue. The solutions, EWA suggests, include: "continued federal and state funding to school districts impacted by the pandemic; transparency in data reporting to most effectively target resources to those most in need and equitable access to high-quality math teaching and learning."

Getting data in a timely manner for reporting has proven difficult. While several school districts provided copies of their first quarter attendance data upon request, ODE initially pushed back.

A spokesperson for the agency said the data still needed to be validated by districts, and would not be made publicly available until February, more than halfway through the school year. More than a month after a records request, the agency provided the raw average daily membership data, but rejected a request for a fee waiver. Government agencies routinely waive fees for records provided to media agencies for the purposes of public reporting.

Lesson Plans

This article is part of a collaboration with and other media across the country covering the impacts of COVID-19 on education in rural America.

The collaboration was made possible by the Walton Family Foundation.

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