No failing grades, but failing performance in South Florida schools

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South Florida schools will escape the stigma of getting F grades this year, but many still failed miserably in their student achievement scores during the first full year of the pandemic.

Had the state released grades this year, almost half of Broward County schools and a third of Palm Beach County schools would have received D’s or F’s, according to state data released by the two school districts.

School grades are based mostly on performance on the Florida Standards Assessment, which wasn’t given in 2020 due to schools closing for the pandemic.

Broward lost all the gains it had made since the standardized test started in 2015 and then some, Chief Academic Officer Dan Gohl said at a recent School Board workshop.

“This is deeply, deeply concerning to us,” he said.

School districts hope a 100% return to in-person learning, mandated by the state, will help improve student performance. They are using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to try to catch students up, conducting more teacher training, hiring tutors, paying teachers extra to work overtime and expanding the school day and school year for struggling students. They also greatly expanded summer school this year.

“There’s a lot of learning loss in all of our schools,” said Keith Oswald, a deputy superintendent in Palm Beach County.

If Palm Beach County received grades for all its schools, the number of A’s would drop from 89 two years ago to 31 this year while D’s would increase from four to 44 and F’s would rise from zero to 24.

In Broward, 25 schools would receive A’s if they were graded, down from 105 two years ago. D’s would increase from 13 two years ago to 83 this year and F’s would increase from one to 58.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel received the data used to calculate school grades from Broward and Palm Beach County school districts through public records requests. A similar review was not immediately available for Miami-Dade, a spokeswoman said, but a Sun Sentinel analysis of test scores found large academic declines in that district as well.

For the 2020-21 school year, the state is giving grades only to schools that want them, requiring them to opt in. This is due to the unprecedented nature of the past school year when families were struggling with COVID-19, job losses, child care issues and remote learning. All three school districts opened for in-person learning by October, but students were slow to come back, and only about half did in South Florida.

Districts were required to notify the state by Aug. 30 of which schools were opting in.

Broward is asking that 16 schools get grades this year, not including charter schools. All are A-rated except for Larkdale and Thurgood Marshall elementaries in Fort Lauderdale, which both improved from a D to a C, enabling them to come off a list of low-performing schools that must submit accountability reports.

Miami-Dade County is opting in one traditional school, Earlington Heights Elementary in Miami, which improved from a D to a C.

Palm Beach County is asking for grades for two non-charter schools. They are Indian Pines Elementary in western Lake Worth and Gove Elementary in Belle Glade, both of which are expected to be C-rated and will fall off state low-performing school lists.

Administrators in Palm Beach County decided against opting in certain schools just to show they got an A.

“The District does not believe the State test performance is indicative of the efforts and achievements of our students, teachers and schools considering the challenges of the 2021 school year,” a school district statement says. “As such, having select schools receive grades when others don’t would lead to false comparisons and inappropriate conclusions in light of the different circumstances each of our schools and communities faced last year.”

The few successes at some schools were largely overshadowed by overall poor achievement.

A Sun Sentinel analysis of nearly 900 schools in South Florida found that schoolwide performance in math and reading improved in just 31 schools. About 55 schools dropped 50 points or more in math. About 40 dropped 30 or more points in language arts. These declines changed some schools from high-performing to failing schools.

Nova Blanche Forman Elementary in Davie was A-rated in 2019 and has rarely fallen below a B since grades started two decades ago. The school was once so popular that parents signed their children up at birth to try to attend. Had it been graded this year, it would have been an F, the data shows. Fifth grade performance was particularly dismal, with passing scores sinking from 71% to 28% in math and 67% to 47% in language arts.

Fourteen schools that received B’s in 2019 scored low enough to get an F this year, including Annabel C. Perry PK-8 in Miramar, Pasadena Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines, Somerset Preparatory Academy in North Lauderdale and Renaissance Charter School at Plantation.

The results were also awful for North County K-8 Center in Miami Gardens, which last received a B. Its passing rates on a sixth grade math test dropped from 69% to 7%. Several grade levels also dropped more than 20 points in language arts. The school would likely have fallen to a D or F had it been graded.

In Palm Beach County, two schools that rated B in 2019, Pioneer Park Elementary in Belle Glade and Pleasant City Elementary in Riviera Beach, scored low enough this year to get F’s. Many C-rated schools would have also become F’s, including Rolling Green Elementary and Congress MIddle, both in Boynton Beach.

Carl Richardson teaches pre-algebra to students at Lauderdale Lakes Middle. The school suffered large drops in math scores during the pandemic.

Carl Richardson teaches pre-algebra to students at Lauderdale Lakes Middle. The school suffered large drops in math scores during the pandemic. (Scott Travis)

Brandy Phalo, a parent of a second grader at Rolling Green, said teachers seemed overwhelmed last year and didn’t always call and check on her daughter’s performance. Phalo said she recently bought a phonics program to help her daughter catch up.

“I’m also taking her to the library on the weekends and trying to communicate better with her teachers,” Phalo said.

While the pandemic is believed to be the main cause of decline, some schools had other unique challenges.

Rickards Middle in Fort Lauderdale suffered a roof collapse during the school day in early March. Students first worked remotely and then temporarily moved to classrooms at Broward College in Coconut Creek before being reassigned to other middle schools. The school received a C two years ago, but would have been an F this year if it were graded, the data shows.

Only 13% of students passed a sixth grade math test. Educators say math is a difficult skill to learn at home, and parents are often ill-equipped to help their children.

Muriel Theophin-Atilus, whose daughter Rielly was a sixth grader at Rickards last year, said some teachers felt sorry for the trauma students went through with the roof collapse and didn’t push them hard enough. She noticed Rielly especially struggled when classes were virtual, easily getting distracted with her cellphone while logged into class on her laptop.

“Prior to the pandemic, she wasn’t bringing home all A’s and B’s, but she was doing OK,” Theophin-Atilus said. “But last year, she barely passed the sixth grade.”

The Rickards roof collapse revealed structural weaknesses in four similarly designed middle schools, causing them to close for repairs and revert to at-home learning last spring, just weeks before testing. Two of those schools, Plantation Middle and Lauderdale Lakes Middle, both C-rated in 2019, scored low enough to get an F this year, mostly due to huge declines in math.

“We were thriving when we came back initially” from remote learning, said Carl Richardson, a math teacher at Lauderdale Lakes. “But after we had to go back to virtual, it took a lot out of the kids,”

Algebra is normally an area of success for middle schools since it’s given only to higher-achieving students, but that didn’t happen this past year. The overall algebra passing rates in Broward fell from 91% to 70%. At Lauderdale Lakes, it plunged from 86% to 54%. Rickards dropped from 89% to 39%.

“Our approach to algebra was predicated on hands-on work. That did not map well for pandemic learning,” Gohl said.

Richardson said he’s starting to see some glimmers of hope that his students at Lauderdale Lakes Middle will improve.

“I definitely see the enthusiasm in the kids. They’re glad to be back in the classroom, and they seem to be learning more and more,” Richardson said. “They’re more engaged in the last three weeks, and they agree this is the best way to learn.”

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