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School districts: Academic standards dipped with distance learning

Foothill High School Chromebook

Foothill High School staff handed out chromebooks to parents and students in preparation for the first day of the 2020-21 school year.

Talk to any teacher, student or parent, and they will tell you distance learning and other chaos wrought by the pandemic took the focus away from academics. But data is beginning to trickle in for the last school year that demonstrates just that.

There were no test scores to gauge the academics of this year, but the California Department of Education requires districts to survey educators annually on the academic standards of their own district. 

This information gets used for the California Dashboard, a public tool meant to show whether schools are meeting the needs of students. In a typical year, that data wouldn't come out until fall, but the state is requiring districts to present this information to the public along with their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which has been happening in the last week. They've also been sharing data from student and parent surveys, which will also be a part of the Dashboard.

The largest three districts in the county — Kern High School District, Bakersfield City School District and Panama-Buena Vista Union School District — shared data from staff surveys showing that implementation of academic standards has slipped. All three presentations attributed this at least in part to distance learning.

Surveys rated course subjects on a scale of 1-5. The lowest is 1, which is "exploration and research phase" and the highest is 5, which is "full implementation and sustainability." 

Monday night, Brandi Ball, KHSD's supervising administrator of the LCAP, shared data on the implementation of academic standards from annual staff spring surveys.

The highest scores were the district's health courses at 4. Most of the district's coursework was rated at 3. The district's science and world language offerings were rated 2. She shared the data with the caveat that the district's online platform, Canvas, was part of the reason for lower scores.

"Please keep in mind, this is based on teachers using Canvas and using Canvas' online courses, so that could be an explanation of why some areas rated lower in comparison to previous years," Ball told the school board.

The story was similar at Bakersfield City School District, where Rocio Munoz, executive director of educational services, attributed a drop from previous years to the pandemic. Its core programs all had scores of 3 or 2.

"Perhaps some of the impact of some of these ratings were also impacted by the fact that we were administering or doing our instruction in a COVID format," Munoz told the board last week. "That's one of the challenges we were having to face this year."

Brandi Dye, assistant superintendent of instructional services at PBVUSD, told trustees last week that staff surveys indicated a lot of time this school year was spent on figuring out how to engage students in distance learning and do small group instruction. 

Surveys showed that numbers in English Language Arts and English Language Development slipped by a point when it came to implementing policies or programs to support staff in delivering instruction aligned to academic standards. Math also slipped slightly. Core subjects were scored 3s, except for math at 3/4.

"Feedback attributed this to the pandemic, but principals did continue to provide support throughout the year," Dye said. "But they did state that their focus was more on distance learning."

But there were bright spots in PBVUSD's data, Dye said. Staff rated the professional learning and development higher this year over last year, especially in the areas of the state's science standards and history/social science. This carried over into the classroom where teachers said those subjects improved from last year from 2 to 3.