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CMS Report On Grades And Absences Raises Questions About Remote Vs. Hybrid Learning

Charlotte Barber
Students who learned from home fared better than those who moved between schools and remote classes, new CMS numbers show.

A report on third-quarter grades and absenteeism in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools revealed what some called a surprising twist: Students who consistently learned from home fared better than those who moved in and out of in-person classes.

By now it’s well established that the pandemic has brought academic setbacks, especially for students who faced challenges before COVID-19 closed schools. That’s true in CMS and across the country.

Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes told the school board Tuesday that the percentage of CMS students who failed math or English classes in the third quarter remains high compared to pre-pandemic levels, but "there was a reduction across the board from second quarter to third quarter, which is encouraging."

"I would say these figures are still too high. We don’t have a reason to say 'mission accomplished,'" he added.

Barnes told the board he was surprised at what he found when board member Jennifer De La Jara asked him to break out that data by students enrolled in Full Remote Academy, who consistently learned from home, compared with those in what CMS calls the hybrid model. That means they spent some time attending in person and some learning from home, in a schedule that frequently changed with state rules and COVID-19 rates.

"We did see that students in Full Remote Academy did receive a lower percentage of F’s than their peers who received both a mix of in-person and remote instruction," he said.

For hybrid students, about 21% got at least one F in third quarter, compared with 27% in second quarter. For full remote, that was 18% getting an F in third quarter, compared with 22% in second quarter.

Barnes said he can’t explain the difference between full remote and hybrid results, and he has no comparable data from other districts. Board member Sean Strain suggested the in-person students spent so little time in classrooms between Jan. 5 and March 11 that the numbers are meaningless.

Failure rates remain higher among Black and Hispanic students, regardless of whether they attended in person. For instance, about 19% of white students and 13% of Asian students in hybrid mode earned at least one F during third quarter, compared with almost 30% of Black and Hispanic counterparts. For those in full remote, less than 5% of Asian students, almost 16% of white students, 21% of Black students and 23% of Hispanic students got an F.

Levels of chronic absenteeism leveled off in the third quarter. That’s defined as missing at least 10% of school days, or 13 days by March 11. Again, Full Remote students fared better than their hybrid counterparts, but the big gaps showed when Barnes compared students in schools with low, medium and high poverty levels.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Low-poverty schools actually saw chronic absenteeism drop during the pandemic, he said, while it spiked in medium and high-poverty schools.

"When you look at middle schools, you can see a slight decrease for low-poverty schools in chronic absenteeism," Barnes said. "You can see a marked, double-figure increase for moderate-poverty schools. And you can see us going over 50% of our students were chronically absent at high-poverty schools."

Rhonda Cheek was among several board members who worried aloud about what would become of middle school students who disengage from school.

"We’ve got to recapture those middle school students or we leave them with no future," she said.

Breana Fowler, a North Mecklenburg High junior who is the board’s student adviser, says she thinks CMS took a step in the right direction when it revised its grading policies in February. Starting in the third quarter, teachers couldn’t give any grade below 50%, even when work wasn’t turned in. They also had to give students a five-day grace period to turn in late work with no penalty.

Fowler says she’s heard students say that’s doing what it’s supposed to: Encouraging them to keep trying even when life in the pandemic interferes with school.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.