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Nearly 4 out of 5 Chicago students are logging on to do schoolwork, but not all participate equally

Young girl doing schoolwork on a laptop.

Chicago officials trace an increase in participation to the district’s new grading policy.

Annie Spratt/Unsplash

About 77% of Chicago students logged on to access schoolwork online, and almost 85% completed at least one graded assignment during the week of May 11, a sharp increase officials trace to the debut of a stricter grading policy.

But data the country’s third-largest district released Wednesday also shows students of color and those with special needs are participating in remote learning at much lower rates than their peers. One-third of special education students did not log in at all during the week of May 11. 

Participation rates dropped off when the district looked at students logging on to its Google learning platforms more than once a week or submitting more than one assignment, which some students did in other platforms or on paper. Overall, 15% of all students were not in touch with their schools that week.

Chicago Public Schools has gotten some criticism for holding off on releasing numbers that capture what portion of its more than 300,000 students take part in distance learning. District leaders said that the information was worth the wait: The district’s data offers much richer detail than other urban districts have provided, including a breakdown by race and student group. The district touted it as “one of the most comprehensive overviews of remote learning released by any district in the country.”

Still, the data only begins to get at how much learning is happening while school buildings remain closed to rein in the spread of the coronavirus. District officials said they will be digging deeper. 

“I feel really good about where we are in terms of capturing a detailed view,” said LaTanya McDade, the district’s chief education officer. “We are continuing to build on that.” 

Families, educators and others are hungry for this information as they try to navigate remote instruction with little conventional wisdom on what works. The district said the data will guide leaders as they wrap up the school year and gear up for an uncertain fall, and will help gauge which schools need additional resources.

It is not clear how widely engagement numbers vary among Chicago’s schools. Officials said they will make school-level numbers available, possibly later this week.

Districts nationally have grappled with tracking how successfully their schools are engaging students in remote learning. They’ve often settled for imperfect measures. Districts such as those in Los Angeles and Miami have monitored the portion of students who log on to their online learning portals, but there can be a wide discrepancy between doing that and actually completing schoolwork. 

Each week, New York City releases its daily attendance tally by grade level. The data counts students who complete an assignment, take part in an online discussion, respond to a teacher’s email — or even have a parent affirm they are doing school work in a phone call with school staff. That data suggests about 82% of New York high school students participated in early May.

District officials said their latest data suggests 93% of Chicago students have digital access. That metric combined data on logging onto Google platforms, which students can do using their cell phones, and numbers provided by schools, which only counted students who have both a computer and internet access. 

The district noted that the portion of students in grades 1 through 12 who access assignments and other class content or tune in to live video classes has ticked up steadily since the formal start of remote learning in April. The district said many students in preschool and kindergarten do not generally use Google platforms, and none receive graded assignments, which make their participation rates trickier to assess. 

The percentage of students who accessed Google Classroom or Google Meet during the week of May 11 varied from 45% in first grade to almost 90% in eighth grade. However, those rates decreased markedly when measuring the percentage of students who logged on twice a week (just short of 70%) and three times a week (less than 60%). 

And the district found a gap of more than 15 percentage points between participation for whites and Asians on one hand, who had the highest ratest rates, and black students on the other, who make up 37% of enrollment. For Latinos, who make up nearly half of the district’s student body, that rate was more than 10 percentage points lower than that for whites and Asians. 

Special education students, English learners and students in temporary living situations also engaged at significantly lower rates, with slightly more than two-thirds of students with special needs logging on at least once a week.

McDade called these disparities “disheartening.”

“Some of the disparities unfortunately I wasn’t surprised by,” she said. “This pandemic has impacted students of color disproportionately.”

About 60% of students districtwide tuned in to at least one live video class via Google Meet.

Experts believe data that captures the rate of turning in assignments is the most revealing. In Chicago, the district saw a major rise in graded assignments after it released new guidance April 30 spelling out that students who don’t do required class work would have to make it up during the summer or fall to get credit for those classes. 

On the eve of the change, about half of students got at least one graded assignment a week; by the week of May 11, that proportion had jumped to almost 85%. The district also saw racial and other disparities in assignment data, and the numbers dropped off when looking at two or three weekly assignments. 

McDade said the data affirms that a policy that allowed teachers to issue grades in their classes and incompletes for students who did not do the work was “the right thing to do.” The dramatic increase in graded assignments since the policy went into effect means students now receive much more feedback on how they are doing in their classes, she noted. 

The district’s teachers union and some student leaders have criticized the grading approach, saying it penalizes students dealing with the pandemic’s fallout. 

The district said that not all of its schools, which have tracked student participation in disparate ways, have submitted data yet. 

At Amundsen High School, Principal Anna Pavichevich said collecting and crunching detailed numbers on student engagement have proved key in guiding outreach to students and instruction. Teachers at Amundsen log daily numbers on which students stay in touch with them, join video classes and turn in assignments. 

Educators have compared notes on engaging students who might be showing up for some classes but not others. For some students educators have struggled to reach, the school enlisted other staff such as coaches, counselors or even a security guard to help. 

Pavichevich said it’s important to look at this type of data in the context of the enormous disruption in students’ lives the COVID-19 outbreak has created. 

“Remote learning is challenging under the best circumstances,” she said. “This is a complicated time to be an educator, and it’s a complicated time to be a student.” 

Mueze Bawany, an educator at Roberto Clemente Community Academy who teaches a seminar class for seniors, said his students are trying to juggle remote learning with child care for younger siblings, jobs they’ve taken on to support financially stressed out families and other responsibilities. Some still lack reliable internet access at home. 

He said participation data could paint an overly rosy picture of how challenging these past weeks have been. He said he and some of his colleagues have seen engagement drop off, with a modest boost after grading guidance changed. Some teachers have tried to scale back and simplify assignments to help students re-engage and get caught up. 

“I will openly say it didn’t work for us; you can ask any of my students,” he said. “This pandemic proved there is a massive gap between our kids.” 

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