When the semester began, Tianna Le made a point of sitting at the desk in her room to complete all her virtual lessons. With her school-provided iPad, the Putnam City High School sophomore intently powered through the day’s work, much like she has every other year of her school career.
As time went by, however, she began to favor the comfort of her own bed over the desk. Now she does her math homework under the covers, listening to music and maybe calling a friend. Math is Le’s favorite subject, but if she gets stuck on a problem, it helps to talk it out with a classmate.
“Once they start adding letters to the numbers, that’s where I get lost,” she said.
Le is a good student, but after a semester mostly spent away from her friends, enthusiasm for her lessons is withering.
“It can be hard to stay focused and be motivated to do school,” she said. “You just wake up every day, do homework in bed and try not to go back to sleep.”
Le’s mother, Nicki Durbin, is a self-employed nail technician with an in-home studio in Oklahoma City. She’s proud of Le’s maturity in taking ownership of her education but wonders if it’s all happening too fast.
“I feel bad for kids nowadays,” Durbin said. “You don’t really even get to be a kid anymore.”
As Oklahoma school districts wrap up an unusual fall semester that forced many students like Le to do their studies away from teachers, educators are wondering how much academic ground they will need to make up in the future. Teachers say some students either are doing the bare minimum to get through distance learning or have disappeared altogether.
Federally-mandated state testing is still scheduled for the end of the school year, and experts predict test scores will be lower than in the past due to a year of disrupted learning. That could complicate how schools decide to advance students to the next grade, as state exam results are among the criteria they consider.
Data from school districts is usually a vital window into student performance. But when Big If True asked 15 Oklahoma school districts for data on this semester, most didn’t provide the information.
Among the data requested were the districts’ percentage of students currently passing, attendance figures and the percentage of students regularly logging into Canvas or other education management programs. Five districts – Tulsa, Edmond, Union, Owasso and Skiatook public schools – provided most of the data. Ten, including Oklahoma City, Moore and Putnam City public schools, provided no data at all despite multiple requests by email and phone.
The result is an incomplete picture of how many Oklahoma students are showing up to class and passing during a semester that delivered a barrage of challenges to students and educators.
Meanwhile, longstanding disparities in education have remained in place during the pandemic, with participation in distance learning differing widely from student to student, said Joanna Lein, executive director of the Teaching and Leading Initiative of Oklahoma. A few high school teachers have told Lein that only about half of their students are actively engaged in virtual classes.
“Schools have straight-out lost kids,” she said.
Lein believes a last-ditch push at schools to get students to complete work and improve their standing might be one reason districts are reluctant to share data.
“As educators, we are constantly thinking about how to address gaps in student learning and work completion,” she said. “Since we are not at the end of the semester, we are still hustling to make sure that we get as many students as possible to not be failing.”
During the previous spring semester, a federal waiver exempted all Oklahoma students from state standardized tests. This school year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education plans to move forward with testing third to eighth grade students and 11th graders.
State Deputy Superintendent of Assessment and Accountability Maria Harris said the department is examining what adjustments should be made, such as expanding the testing window and making allowances for remote exams.
“Right now, we’re really trying to do the best with what we have,” she said. “We’re thinking about what flexibilities we can provide and what other considerations we should have for schools as we come up on the March to April administration.”
Although often a subject of controversy, federally-required standardized tests allow states and school districts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Scores demonstrate how different subsets of students are progressing and help identify potential gaps in instruction areas, Harris said.
“It’s the only common measure that we as a state have to look at how students are being supported,” she said.
Tammy Shelton, principal of Mitchell Elementary School on Tulsa’s east side, said in a normal year, state testing results, among other things, would factor into the decision to hold students back a year. In the event that state testing is canceled again, Shelton said her school would turn to data from benchmark tests that track students’ progress during the year.
Lein said how educators decide to hold back students depends on the school, but it is often a decision made in committee by teachers, principals and parents.
“Most likely, I’m imagining that everyone will advance this year,” Lein said, “simply because we just don’t have enough good data on whether they’re making progress or not.”
Lein said testing is also a way to address educational inequalities, and for that reason, she believes it’s especially important this year.
“In my personal opinion, I think we should strive to gather the data this year because of the disruptions,” Lein said. “We know the scores will be lower — there is no way that they will not be — but it is critical to understand how much lower. What will we, as educators, have to face once we actually get our kids back in schools?”
Catherine Harben, a fifth grade reading teacher at Mitchell Elementary, doesn’t think it would be fair to measure this year’s student performance with testing, especially because homes aren’t the same as a traditional exam environment.
“I think as long as my kids are excited by school and they’re looking forward to going to sixth grade and feel prepared — regardless of whether their test scores went up 15 or 20 points or whatever — if they still have joy in learning, that’s the biggest thing I look for this year,” she said.
Numbers from five Oklahoma school districts showed far fewer students were disciplined for attendance issues than a year ago.
But those numbers don’t show the whole picture. In a year with limited in-person classes, the way that schools take attendance has changed. Many school districts, including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Putnam City public schools, don’t base virtual attendance solely on whether or not students attended remote video instruction sessions. In fact, viewing teacher videos and streams is not always necessary for attendance if students are submitting assignments, district policies show.
For example, Tulsa Public Schools uses logins to Canvas, an education management program, and completed assignments to determine attendance, spokesperson Lauren Partain Barber said. According to Oklahoma City Public Schools’ policy, students must participate in face-to-face remote instruction, log into Canvas, respond to an email or other communication from a teacher or be caught up on their work for the day to be counted as present. Students can also be counted as present if a parent reports technology issues.
Lein said the bar for attendance in many districts is “painfully low.”
“A kid can spend maybe three hours on the computer and be done with school for the week,” she said. “Schools are all addressing their attendance policies in different ways, making it difficult to really get a clear picture, from district to district, if there is a real difference in student attendance.”
The number of chronically absent students in Tulsa Public Schools has risen 21% from last fall to about 15,800 students this semester, district data shows. Even with the increase, the number of students disciplined for chronic absenteeism has fallen from more than 100 last fall to only two this semester.
Stephanie Andrews, interim executive director of student and family support services for Tulsa Public Schools, said schools in her district are less likely to pursue punishment as a result of absenteeism this year because of all the financial, physical and emotional health circumstances students might find themselves in during a pandemic. When schools don’t hear from a student, their primary concern is safety.
“We’re taking it very seriously,” Andrews said. “Students that we haven’t heard from, since we’re not having our eyes on them, is it because they are depressed? Is it a mental health issue? Is it electricity? We just don’t know.”
Shelton, Mitchell Elementary’s principal, said her students currently have an attendance rate around 96%, making it one of the most well-attended schools in Tulsa Public Schools.
Harben, the teacher from Mitchell, said communication from parents is stronger than ever, but it has not been enough to overcome the inherent challenges of distance learning.
If students don’t want to come to class or do their work this year, there is not a lot a teacher can do about it. For the students who are present, directing their interest toward the lesson is its own challenge, and answering questions through online chat is little substitute for the real thing.
“It’s a lot more difficult to try and engage kids, because in the classroom, you can just call on them, and they can just talk to you,” Harben said. “With the technology issues that some kids have, even if they have internet or a hotspot, it lags. Getting kids engaged in the lesson, even if they’re actively there, is a technological nightmare.”
Shelton said it’s right to temper expectations for how much and how well students can learn this year. With safety the current priority, schools will have to help students catch up further down the road.
“Skills will be lost,” she said. “It’s not the same world where everything is great and we only have to focus on education right now.”
While it might be tempting to move on from this year as quickly as possible, Lein believes there is a lot of value in analyzing and understanding education in the pandemic. The shortcomings of education cannot be addressed until they are first identified.
“If covid has taught us anything, it is that all kids, communities and families are different,” Lein said. “Some kids are thriving in this environment, and some are lost. We need to understand who, what, where, when and why, and data needs to drive that analysis.”
Le, the Putnam City High sophomore, was in Kansas visiting her dad on spring break when the spread of covid in the United States forced schools to shut their doors for the remainder of the year. For a while, she was stuck in Kansas as her family and the world at large tried to make sense of it all. She felt scared. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.
Eight months later, it’s still dominating the world around her.
“I thought it was going to be over,” she said, “but here we are.”
Teachers are as eager as their students for classes to return to normal – or close to normal.
For Harben, one of the benefits of teaching is the time she spends bonding with her students and watching them grow as people throughout the year. Strong student-teacher relationships are hard to develop through remote instruction.
“A lot of the joy of teaching, and it sounds really bad, but it’s just not really there,” she said. “I love eating lunch with the kids and going to recess with them or going to their soccer games, but we just can’t do that this year, and that stinks.”
Ben Luschen is a writer and journalist based in Oklahoma City who covers a wide range of subjects. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big If True editor Mollie Bryant provided reporting on school district data. Contact her at 405-990-0988 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.
The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. This story is part of that effort.