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Chicago schools are watching this student engagement metric closely. Here’s why.

Race, special education and poverty did play a clear role in remote learning participation, a Chalkbeat analysis of the data shows.
Stacey Rupolo

At one high-poverty elementary school in Chicago’s South Side, almost 90% of students turned in at least one graded assignment during one week in mid-May. At a nearby elementary with similar demographics, about 10% did.

New data gauging how many Chicago students received graded schoolwork remotely this spring reveals a wide range of outcomes — a more nuanced picture than earlier districtwide numbers that showed about 85% of students across the city turned in at least one graded assignment a week.

Schools should monitor assignment data closely, experts say, because it is the gold standard for gauging online student engagement. Simply logging on to a digital platform, such as Google Classroom, does not fully capture how much schoolwork students complete and, by extension, how much they are learning.

Race, special education and poverty did play a clear role in remote learning participation, a Chalkbeat analysis of the data shows. Schools serving more children with special needs and black students generally struggled more to engage them.

But the numbers also reveal that many schools serving the city’s most vulnerable students beat the odds, and schools with comparable demographics saw disparate engagement rates. That suggests that school practices made a key difference in how well educators were able to get students to participate in distance learning.

“You would actually expect these demographic factors to be stronger predictors,” said Elaine Allensworth of the Consortium for Chicago School Research.

Understanding why some schools appeared to fare much better than others is a critical next step for Chicago, as it looks toward virtual summer school and a fall that could well include at least part-time remote learning. In the absence of standardized tests and other traditional measures, these numbers offer a rare window into how school is going in the nation’s third-largest district.

Educators will need to comb through this data, released late last month, at the student level as they gear up to assess and confront learning losses brought about by the pandemic.

The Chicago data includes assignments students in grades 1 through 12 turned in via any digital platform, but likely not paper assignments, because students were instructed to submit those at the end of the year. It also shows 73% of Chicago students received at least three graded assignments during the week of May 11, the most recent one for which data is available.

Most high school students take seven classes, and some educators have said they scaled back or simplified schoolwork to help students keep up during the pandemic.

A wide range of outcomes

Jennifer Sutton, the principal at Von Steuben High School, says it’s hard to overstate the steep learning curve schools faced to engage students navigating the disruption and financial stress from the pandemic. About two-thirds of Von Steuben, on the city’s Northwest Side, qualify for subsidized lunch, and roughly 10% received devices from the district.

“As a school, how do we hold up and support 1,700 students when we don’t see them and we have never done this before?” Sutton said.

District leaders credit a new grading policy Chicago released in late April with a steep increase in student participation over the five weeks of available data. The policy spelled out how students who did not complete schoolwork this spring would have to make it up during the summer or fall.

All schools improved their rates of graded assignments over those five weeks. About 60 schools saw a dip in the last week after an apparent initial boost from the grading changes.

Sutton said the district’s move to allow grades definitely boosted participation in assignments. But practices Von Steuben embraced early on also played a role at the school, where an overwhelming majority of students were submitting at least one assignment even on the eve of the new policy.

For example, Sutton said the school rallied around a consistent schedule from the start — but teachers were flexible if students took on new responsibilities, such as a full-time job, that made it hard to tune in.

The school tracked each student’s engagement in every class and put “all hands on deck” when a student fell behind in doing work: Administrators, teachers, counselors, special education assistants and even security guards made phone calls home and helped troubleshoot hurdles to learning.

Educators scaled back to keep work manageable and placed a priority on social and emotional check-ins to “to establish a sense of belonging and safety in the virtual space.”

Throughout the district, engagement varied significantly. At roughly 40 elementary schools and eight high schools in the district, all students submitted at least one assignment during the week of May 11.

On the flip side, roughly 30 elementaries had one-third or fewer of their students submitting at least one assignment. That number grew to more than 50 schools when looking at least three assignments a week. More than two dozen high schools had fewer than 70% of students who submitted at least three assignments.

Demographics count — up to a point

The schools’ student demographics mattered.

In schools where fewer than 10% of students have special needs, 90% of students submitted at least one assignment during the week of May 11. In schools with 30% or more of students qualifying for special education services, fewer than 70% of students did so.

In schools where fewer than a fifth of students qualify for subsidized lunch, more than 90% of students submitted an assignment. In those with more than 80% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, about 80% submitted an assignment. This gap widened slightly when looking at three or more assignments.

Race was also a strong predictor: In schools serving a majority of white students, 93% of students submitted at least one graded assignment. In those serving majority black students, that percentage stood at 73%. Those with mostly Latino student populations had a rate of 85% on average.

Another factor tied to participation in schoolwork was the portion of students at a school who received a computer from the district. In schools where 10% or fewer of students got a laptop, more than 90% of students submitted an assignment. At those where more than half of students got a device, only about 70% participated in this way.

Allensworth says this makes sense: Schools that handed out devices to many of their students likely serve a more vulnerable population, where families might face added hurdles, from access to the internet to new responsibilities for students such as helping out with child care for younger siblings. And the longer it took for a family to obtain a device, the steeper the task of catching up with schoolwork — and the higher the odds a student might check out from classes altogether.

But the data also reveals numerous examples of high-poverty, diverse schools that achieved a perfect or near-perfect rate of students turning in at least one assignment. It also includes cases of nearby schools with similar demographics that had disparate participation outcomes.

Allensworth said that suggests that exactly how some schools handled the abrupt shift to remote learning and what they did to engage students made a difference, trumping school demographics and barriers to access such as the city’s digital divide.

It’s hard to put this spring’s numbers into context because of the lack of a comparable situation and readily available data on assignment completion from previous years in Chicago. But Allensworth said it’s valid to compare the rate of students who didn’t turn in any schoolwork with Chicago’s pre-pandemic chronic absenteeism rates, which are about 5% at the elementary and 10% at the high school level.

About 16% of students in grades 1 through 12 districtwide did not submit any assignments during the week of May 11.

“It does look like there are many more students who are not engaging in school than normal,” Allensworth said.

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