English teacher Heather Tremblay communicates with her remote students via Zoom on her laptop during a class at Biddeford High School on Monday. Tremblay teaches both in-person and remote students at the same time. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

School districts across Maine are reporting drops in academic performance amid the coronavirus pandemic, as shifts to remote instruction have made teaching and learning more difficult for students and teachers.

Biddeford High School reported a 9 percentage point increase in the course failure rate in the first quarter of the year. The Portland public school system saw an 8 percentage point increase in the course failure rate at its two largest high schools. And in Gorham, some teachers and administrators are worried after seeing standardized test scores drop by 10 percentage points or more in some subject areas and grade levels.

“It doesn’t come as a shock,” said Biddeford High School Principal Martha Jacques. “Obviously we’re disappointed and we want all kids to succeed, but we’ve also had a group of students that have been out of traditional education for six-plus months by the time they came back to school this fall and the nature of a hybrid model is very different than what they’re used to with an in-classroom model.”

Schools around the country have reported increases in failing grades and declines in academic performance this fall. While Maine educators say the shift is not a surprise, they’re also trying to brainstorm ways to overcome learning loss and keep their students on track, whether it’s by adjusting their teaching styles, adding extra office hours or hiring additional staff to provide support for students.

“We knew they were going to regress,” said Rebecca West, a second-grade teacher at Gorham’s Village Elementary School. “So we really had to think about instruction this fall and take into account how we were going to set up classrooms.”

West said she has been focusing most on the core areas of reading, writing and math and forewarned parents at the beginning of the year that reading was her biggest concern. “I told them if you just do one thing, ‘Have them read aloud,'” she said. “The reading, they need to do it over and over again to build fluency. That’s how I’ve managed it, having them know this is my priority.”

Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said her district’s greatest concerns with regard to academics are seen at the elementary level in math. In the fall students across all grade levels took the NWEA, a standardized test given three times a year to measure both individual and grade-level progress.

Only 57 percent of second-graders met or exceeded expectations on the reading portion of the test, compared to 77 percent last year. In math, second- and fifth-graders were behind by more than 10 percent compared to last year’s cohorts at those grade levels.

Kim Fadrigon, K-8 instructional leader in Gorham, said younger students might suffer the largest academic losses because they are less independent and not as accustomed to using the technology needed for remote learning.

“I think, yes, the current population in grades 1 through 3 we knew would probably take the largest hit because they’re not independent learners,” Fadrigon said. “That was something to be expected. They’re also very resilient and we have a lot of support in place for them. We’re continuing that communication with home, too.”

At the same time, some high schools are reporting increases in course failures during hybrid learning. In Portland, the course failure rate for Portland and Deering high schools jumped 8 percentage points, from 23 percent last year to 31 percent this year, in the first quarter ending Nov. 13. Data were not available for Casco Bay High School, which operates on trimesters rather than quarters and uses a different grading system.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said course failures increased across the high school grade levels even though ninth-grade students currently have more in-person time than upperclassmen. “There are tremendous challenges with everything our students are going through right now that transcend the mode of instruction,” Botana said. “That has to do with mental health, lack of connection with teachers and other things that are also factors. This is uniform across the country. It’s not just happening to kids in Portland.”

High school principals in Portland met with social work teams last week and are looking at their recommendations for how to better engage students, Botana said. In addition to the increase in course failures, a rise in the number of chronically absent high school students, from 19 percent last year to 22 percent this year, has also presented a challenge.

“We’re making sure we understand who those students are and that we are tailoring interventions to their individual needs,” Botana said. “And then we’re looking at, ‘What are the things we can do to make it better?’ from a policy and practice perspective. This is an incredibly difficult year and we are in uncharted territory. We’re working hard to make sure we’re meeting the needs of students in a multitude of ways they’re challenged in ways that they were not challenged before.”

At the elementary and middle school levels, Botana said it’s harder to judge how the pandemic has impacted academic performance because students receive proficiency-based as opposed to summative grades. “For some students it hasn’t made that big of a difference,” he said. “For kids who have strong support systems at home and have been able to keep up with their academic work, it’s not all that different. And then for students who have been disconnected and disengaged, it’s those kids who are suffering.”

In Brunswick, failure rates climbed at every high school grade level, with the largest increase in 11th grade. In 2019-2020 the course failure rate for high school juniors was 10.5 percent in the first quarter, compared to 22.6 percent this fall. That translates to about 13 additional students who are failing at least one class this fall, said Brunswick High School Principal Troy Henninger.

Brunswick has extended the deadline for students to hand in work from the first quarter and is also making midterm exams optional this year. Henninger said he is optimistic students will be motivated to hand in late work to improve their grades if midterms are optional, and is confident the first quarter grades will improve by the end of the semester, which is when decisions are made on whether a student receives credit.

“We want kids to learn, so teachers, faculty, staff and parents are all being really creative in ways to keep their learner engaged,” Henninger said. “I think that’s how we approach the school year. We’re not doing things like we did in the past. We’re not going to be giving the same types of tests or same types of quizzes.”

In Biddeford, overall high school course failures jumped from 12 percent in the first quarter last year to 21 percent in the first quarter this year. English teacher Heather Tremblay said she wasn’t surprised by that number, but it’s still something concerning to her and her colleagues.

“It all stems from them not being in the building,” Tremblay said. “When you think about a teenager who hasn’t fully developed executive functioning skills, they don’t necessarily know how to organize themselves. They need a lot of guidance in that way and when they don’t have a teacher redirecting them in person, they don’t really have what they need.”

A large number of students who are failing this year are the same students who would be failing in a normal year, Tremblay said. While attendance rates at the high school have actually slightly increased this year, she said the data can be misleading because students who are learning remotely may technically be “present” at school, yet they aren’t staying engaged. In her classes Tremblay is teaching both in-person and remote students at the same time, and it can be difficult to keep the remote students engaged and actively participating.

“Their name is on the Zoom, but the thing as a faculty we’ve been trying to troubleshoot the last few weeks is, ‘What are some strategies to ensure students are staying active and an active participant in the class on Zoom?'” she said. “It’s been difficult to get them to turn their cameras on or type in the chat. Some won’t respond to us at all and it leads us to believe they are not actually there.”

Jillian McSorley, right, listens to classmate Alexis Libby as the two have lunch in the classroom in Heather Tremblay’s AP Language class at Biddeford High School on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Aurelia Leonard, a junior in Tremblay’s AP language and composition class, said remote learning has been an adjustment and has improved since March, but it’s still a little difficult. “My grades have not been as good as they had been,” said Leonard, 16. “I have definitely been struggling but during the break I’m going to try and get back to where I was. I personally was having a really hard time with online school, but I think we’ve tried to cut out distractions at home and hopefully by the start of next term it starts working itself out.”

A classmate, Alexis Libby, said it’s harder to focus at home and avoid distractions from her phone, TV and family. “(My grades) are good,” Libby said. “I just don’t do well at home. When I’m (at school) I’m fine and I do everything I’m supposed to. I do all my homework; I just don’t have motivation to listen when I’m at home.”

Jacques, the Biddeford High School principal, said the school hasn’t changed the way it grades this fall but has taken steps to address what they anticipated would be higher needs from students. A new “resiliency coordinator” is working with students and families to get them connected and engaged and the school is doing more home visits to deliver technology and connect families with non-academic resources. The school also adjusted its Wednesday “flex days” to include a two-hour block of office hours as an opportunity for students to get additional help.

“I think our students are resilient. I think our teachers have worked really hard to make sure our students are getting what they need,” Jacques said. “I think when we got back to school there was an initial adjustment after having been remote and looking at the way we did things moving into the school year. Of course there was some work to get kids back into the learning groove. Of course we’ll always have a handful of kids who struggle academically, but I think overall they’re doing a really nice job and working really hard.”

Some school leaders also said there have been students for whom the move to remote instruction has been beneficial. At Gray-New Gloucester High School, the number of students failing one or more class dropped by 5 percentage points in the first quarter while the percent of students who made honor roll or high honors rose 4 percentage points.

Principal Ted Finn said teachers have been more flexible with students this year, and there are also some students who are excited to be in-person even if it is just two days per week. “After losing out last year, when everyone was 100 percent remote, I think we had some kids who came back and said, ‘I appreciate being able to be here two days per week and I’m going to try harder than I ever did,'” he said. “I think that’s true for many of our kids.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: