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Austin ISD secondary student failure rates remained high at the end of the 2020-21 school year, according to updated data released to Austonia. (Pexels)

Austin ISD secondary students failed courses at much higher rates in the second semester of the 2020-21 school year compared to the 2019-20 school year, even as campuses reopened to students, according to new data released to Austonia.

Around a third of high school students failed at least one course in both semesters of the most recent school year, with a slight increase in the second semester—34.8% compared to 32.7%. During the 2019-20 spring semester, around 15% of high school students failed at least one course.

A similar trend occurred at the middle school level, where around 30% of students failed at least one course in both semesters of the 2020-21 school year. This is nearly double the rate of student failures in the first semester of the 2019-20 school year and more than triple the rate in the second semester.

This updated data shows that student failures continued to be an issue at AISD even as campuses reopened. District officials have attributed the higher failure rates to the challenges of hybrid learning.

AISD resumed in-person classes after winter break as the local COVID-19 risk level improved but continued to offer remote learning through the spring semester—an option that most middle and high school students favored. During the final weeks of classes, which ended June 3, about one-third of middle school students and fewer than 10% of high school students were learning on campus, according to the district.

This trend is not limited to AISD. Similar failure rate increases occurred across the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, according to a recent KHOU report. And nearly 30% of high school students in the 15 largest Central Texas school districts were failing at least one class midway through the 2020-21 school year, according to a KVUE Defenders report published in February.

Rising failure rates are also not completely a consequence of the pandemic, during which time public school districts, including AISD, faced falling enrollment, funding challenges and a widening digital divide.

Other issues

Students were facing myriad challenges during this last school year in addition to the pandemic. Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit, published a statewide report on K-12 students during the pandemic in March, which found an increasing number of students faced food and housing insecurity while dealing with the pandemic, virtual learning and the nationwide reckoning with police violence.

Andrew Hairston, co-author of the report and director of Texas Appleseed's Education Justice Project, said rising school failure rates "provide a microcosmic view of what has been a year of tremendous suffering for your people and their parents and their families" in an interview last month.

Moving forward

AISD announced last week that it plans to return all students to on-campus learning in the 2021-22 school year, as local COVID case rates remain low and after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have allowed for some virtual learning options. "We know and realize this will be a big shift for our students, so we're committed to doing everything possible to help them in that regard," Chief of Schools Anthony Mays said in a statement.

The Texas Appleseed report included a series of recommendations for school districts to alleviate student suffering, including issuing bans on suspensions and expulsions, considering offering a pass/fail grading system for the 2021-22 school year, cutting school police budgets and reinvesting the money into full-time mental health care providers and support services.

"There's just going to be such resounding ripple effects from this pandemic in so many different ways," Hairston said. "It's going to be catastrophic if districts don't take prophylactic measures now."


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