With more failing students in the first nine weeks, Fort Bend ISD looks for second-semester solutions

Amid remote learning and the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, FBISD saw 21% of students fail at least one class in Term 1 of the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Fort Bend ISD/Community Impact Newspaper)
Amid remote learning and the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, FBISD saw 21% of students fail at least one class in Term 1 of the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Fort Bend ISD/Community Impact Newspaper)

Amid remote learning and the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, FBISD saw 21% of students fail at least one class in Term 1 of the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Fort Bend ISD/Community Impact Newspaper)

With failure rates on the rise in Fort Bend ISD—as in much of the nation and state—local education leaders are looking at ways to increase engagement in the online environment and adjust curriculum to recover lost learning, a process that education experts said could take years.

Approximately 21% of FBISD students failed one or more classes during online learning in Term 1, an 8% increase, or an increase of 6,063 students, from the same period last year.

Superintendent Charles Dupre said while other districts are seeing even higher failure rates, the data from FBISD is worrisome.

“The data ... is concerning—it’s concerning to all of us—but it’s the reality,” Dupre said during a presentation Dec. 14 to the board of trustees on student performance during the first nine weeks.

Experts across the state said the reports of higher student failure rates are unfortunate but not unexpected.

“In many ways, what we should be doing is thinking maybe a little bit less about where students are at right now and [instead] about how we can help students get to where they need to be as we begin to leave the situation that we’re currently in,” said Monty Exter, the senior lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Student performance

Deputy Superintendent Diana Sayavedra said the district analyzed failure rates by campus, the percentage of failing students by subject area and the percentage of failing students by subpopulation.

While overall failure rates declined at nine elementary schools, all secondary campuses showed increases in the percentage of students failing. Additionally, the percentage of students failing increased at 22 out of 25 Title I campuses.

District data also shows for kindergarten through 10th-grade math, failure rates increased by 1.8%; for kindergarten through 12th-grade reading and language arts, the failure rate increased by 2.5%; and for kindergarten through 10th-grade science, the failure rate increased by 2.9%.

Briana Ruiz, who has two sons enrolled in FBISD—one in kindergarten and the other in 10th grade—said her younger son has not met standards in writing, which Ruiz attributed in part to his not being able to catch up after online learning. Ruiz said her son struggles with some learning disabilities, including speech comprehension issues, and is in a bridge class to help him catch up.

“If he is unable to catch up along the way and has to be held back, he will be so far behind and such a standout, making him a prime subject for bullies,” Ruiz said.

However, FBISD’s 8% increase in the student failure rate did not affect all students equally. District data shows that Hispanic and Latino students, as well as Black students, saw larger percentage-point increases of failing grades as compared to those of their white and Asian peers. Similarly, bilingual students, English language learners and at-risk and economically disadvantaged students also saw large increases.

“The students prior to COVID who were most at risk—low-income students, special needs students, students [for whom] English is not their first language—are even more at risk now,” Educate Texas Executive Director John Fitzpatrick said.

Educate Texas Policy Director Priscilla Aquino Garza said that if schools are using the same metrics as in previous years to measure student success, it makes sense that they are seeing different results under these different conditions.

“We are using the same measurements we’ve always used in the classroom to measure success,” Aquino Garza said. “I’m not saying you throw those out, but I do think you have to ask yourself, ‘Are these measurements telling me the same thing they were intended to tell me when I wasn’t in a pandemic, when I didn’t have all my students working virtually?’”

The Texas Education Agency announced Dec. 10 that schools will not receive A-F ratings for the 2020-21 school year based on student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Still, students are poised to take the STAAR.

“I know it’s a little unpopular right now, ... but there’s got to be some sort of standardized test done this year,” said Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond. “We need some sort of assessment to figure out where children are at and how we can help them get to where they need to be.”

However, Exter said, keeping the STAAR puts pressure on teachers and administrators to teach to the test instead of being realistic about the pace of learning amid the pandemic.

While the district is focused on students’ academics, Dupre acknowledged the other skills students are acquiring during the pandemic.

“We need to remember ... our students are learning much more right now than the simple books and academic knowledge,” Dupre said. “They are learning about adaptability; they are learning about flexibility—they are learning all kinds of lessons.”

Local, legislative solutions

Sayavedra said FBISD is deploying a multipronged approach to close gaps in student achievement, including credit recovery and grade repair at secondary levels and increased intervention opportunities for elementary students.

She said campus-level teams will work to identify students with increased need and build targeted supports for them.

“Our goal is to determine what might be impeding student progress for our students, remove barriers in terms of their access to the curriculum, and provide the necessary wrap around services to address their needs,” Sayavedra said in an email. “This might include home visits, and regular and ongoing communication with students and their families.”

Jetton, who won election in November to the Texas House seat formerly held by Rick Miller, said that as a father to a 9- and a 13-year-old in FBISD, he has been concerned about the state of education since schools closed for in-person learning last spring.

“I believe the school districts and the teachers did their very best, and it was a great achievement shifting so quickly to [online learning], but the data is starting to show that we’re falling behind on educating our children via distance learning,” Jetton said. “There has to be a big push at some point soon toward all of our children being back in person so that we can get them caught up.”

In November, the TEA released guidance giving districts the ability to stop offering remote learning for students with a class average below 70 or who have three or more unexcused absences in a grading period.

Sayavedra said the district is formulating criteria—including failure of multiple courses along with attendance and engagement concerns—to identify online student learners who are at significant risk for falling behind and to suggest in-person learning for these students.

“Further review of individual student circumstances is part of the process to ensure student and family safety remain a top priority,” Sayavedra said in an email. “Our goal is to ensure student success while continuing to show care and compassion for our students and their families.”

Looking ahead, Exter said he sees a binary decision state education leaders and lawmakers need to make to mitigate the long-term effects of learning loss. Students can move forward to next year with the same expectations there would be in a normal year, and districts can remediate learning, a process Exter said could take three or five years for most children and never end for some students.

The alternative, Exter said, would be for state leaders to seek a solution that does not lock in the learning loss—that instead considers this year a loss and constructs next year as a restart.

“That’s the type of conversation that we need to very realistically have at the state policy level,” Exter said. “[We need to be] looking at those broad, big pictures and then deciding a path and making sure that we are then going to go into that path and fund it appropriately.”

State lawmakers are facing a projected revenue shortage, and Jetton said there will most likely have to be cuts—and potentially, a dip into the state’s Rainy Day Fund—to pass a balanced biennial budget this spring.

“We do need to make sure that we’re providing enough funding for [school districts] to handle the number of students that end up in their classrooms come next school year,” Jetton said.

While FBISD has embraced the idea that the coronavirus pandemic is providing an opportunity to rethink education, Aquino Garza said she hopes more districts and the state take an innovative approach to the future of public education. She gave the example of potentially reorganizing grade levels and classrooms by competence in each subject matter instead of age.

“I just think it’s an opportunity to really reinvent education, change how you staff your school, think about how students are receiving a curriculum and instruction, reconsider your school day,” Aquino Garza said. “I’m hopeful that that’s part of what we do as a community—that we think about how we can really shift education.”
By Claire Shoop

Reporter, Sugar Land/Missouri City

Claire joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2019 as the reporter for the Sugar Land/Missouri City edition and in December 2021 moved to Austin to become the reporter for the Northwest Austin edition. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin in May 2019 where she studied journalism, government and Arabic. While in school, Claire was a fellow for The Texas Tribune, worked for the student newspaper, The Daily Texan, and spent a semester in Washington, D.C. She enjoys playing cards with her family and listening to the Boss, Bruce Springsteen.