Puget Sound region school districts grapple with long-lasting impact to grades from pandemic

Thousands of students are heading back to school with no requirements on masks or social distancing for the first time in two-and-a-half years, but the pandemic had a major and long-lasting impact on learning and grades.

KIRO 7 obtained data on failing and non-complete grades across several school districts, which appeared to show that student engagement is improving, but there is a ways to go.

Tacoma parent Sandra Allen said she was feeling hopeful about this school year. It’s a very different emotion from how she felt in the spring of 2020, when she realized her daughter Hope wasn’t going back to school anytime soon.

“It was very scary, very unnerving,” she said.

Hope was in seventh grade at the time.

“I was very concerned about how she was going to be able to learn - not just the academics, but being out of school, the lack of social interaction during middle-school years,” Allen said. “I could see that there could be a lot of long-lasting negative impacts.”

Now, as Hope prepares for tenth grade at Tacoma School of the Arts, KIRO 7 showed Sandra new grade data obtained on failures and non-completes in Tacoma schools.

Algebra 1B classes before the pandemic had a failure/non-complete rate of 18%. The district decided no one would fail the class in the second semester of 2020. During the following year, a mix of remote and hybrid learning, the failure/non-complete rate skyrocketed to 31%. This past year, that dropped to about 21%.

Allen said that the remote learning year was the toughest.

“My daughter’s challenge was getting homework completed and turned in,” she said, “and making sure it went the right place it was supposed to go to get credit for it.”

For English 1B, the failure/non-complete rate was 9% before the pandemic. In the 2020-2021 school year, it rose to 24%. Last year, it was around 16% when students went back to in-person learning. Hope Allen told KIRO 7 that year was tough in a different way.

“Those masks - definitely were not very helpful,” she said. “I think confidence kind of went down a little bit when you’re constantly covering half of your face.”

KIRO 7 showed the numbers to education expert Wayne Au, interim dean and professor at the UW Bothell School of Educational Studies.

“I think what you’re looking at is sort of a shift in the levels of student engagement,” he said.

While the data is imperfect, it did appear to show some trends in certain districts.

“I mean, we should be glad for that,” Au said. “I don’t think we should underestimate. It’s going to take years to shake this off.”

Looking at Algebra 2 in the Northshore School District, failure/non-complete rates were lower overall. Pre-pandemic, they were at 8%. In 2020-21, they were actually at 6%. They rose to 10% last year.

“I think there’s also students sort of just feeling alienated and feeling distinct from school,” Au said. “And what you’re seeing with those ‘no credit’ percentages are really an expression of that.”

Looking at younger students, new nationwide numbers show a big impact on their learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, math scores had their first decrease in the history of the testing regimen, while reading scores among 9-year-old children saw their largest decrease in 30 years.

“What should parents be on the lookout for this year? How can they best support their students, their kids?,” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“I think this being on the lookout for the socioemotional stuff with our kids is paramount,” Au said. “I think our kids are still getting adjusted to being back in school face to face … If our students don’t feel secure in themselves and feel well about themselves, it really makes the learning part difficult and impossible.”

Sandra Allen said Hope was able to succeed because Sandra made it clear she was right there with her, and because Hope took ownership of her education.

“Do you think going through all that, with the remote, hybrid, the pandemic, do you think that actually made her more confident than she might have been?” Sheldon asked.

“Specifically for my child? One hundred percent,” Allen said. “And I say that cautiously just because all children are differently. But for mine, that it ended up being the push that she needed … after all of that loss, the wins were big.”

Seattle Public Schools Data 2022 Redacted
Tacoma Public Schools Data 2021
Tacoma Public Schools Data 2022
Northshore School District Data 2022
Kent School District Data 2022