Memphis gets its first look at virtual learning data. Here’s what it shows.

A student in a coat and mask sits with her arms crossed in a metal folding chair at a table with a cardboard divider as she looks at her laptop for her online class.
Shelby County Schools students have been learning remotely all school year. A fall test looked at how they’re doing. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Memphis students are struggling with material taught during virtual learning, a top Shelby County Schools official said Monday — pointing to the results of a test meant to gauge student progress.

Meanwhile, the unusually high test scores among the Memphis district’s youngest students has some officials suggesting that adults at home continue to assist with online exams. 

The test results, unveiled Monday evening at a school board committee meeting, cover lessons taught between late August and mid-November, comprising about a third of what students are expected to know by the end of the school year. Districtwide, about 28% of Memphis students scored at or above grade level in English language arts and math, with middle school students struggling the most. Just 8.3% of middle school students were found to be proficient in English and 10.5% in math.

Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer, said the testing data shows how many students are having a hard time meeting state standards.

“The kids are still struggling regardless of a pandemic,” he told reporters after the meeting. “The difference is the challenge is more widespread.”

The district’s report signals that this year’s unique circumstances with all-remote learning make it harder to know how students are doing compared with previous years.

Since teachers cannot monitor remote testing as effectively as they could in person, the results may be skewed. That means more work for teachers, who have to reconcile test scores with what they observe in their virtual classrooms, Burt said. 

“Kids may have scored one thing on the assessment, but when they’re providing instruction and feedback and monitoring instruction inside the classroom, it’s a different story,” he said.

Burt told school board members that his team is leveraging the data to create programs to help students catch up during the spring and summer breaks. School leaders also are using the data to plan out the concepts they need to review with students.

The recent test results, he said, can’t be directly compared with previous years because the most recent tests covered a longer period. Normally, the district administers three of these tests during the school year. This year, there will only be two. The district’s first diagnostic test, given in the fall, was repurposed to check student learning since lawmakers canceled last year’s state tests amid the pandemic.

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School board member Stephanie Love said she wanted to know how many students were unable to take the test because of problems with their internet connection. She also questioned whether these students had the opportunity to retake it so teachers know how to help them.

“What I don’t want to do is have students in a position where you’re offering them a support they may not need,” Love said.

The district’s report showed that about 70% of students took the English test and about 74% took the math test. Burt did not immediately know if that participation rate was unusual or not. 

The report comes as Memphis school leaders are under intense scrutiny from the state for offering only online classes so far this school year. 

Gov. Bill Lee has argued students, especially those from low-income families who make up the majority of Shelby County Schools’ enrollment, are falling behind academically because they don’t have the option to return to classrooms. While district leaders also want to restart in-person learning, Superintendent Joris Ray said the continued spread of COVID-19 makes that too risky, especially for students who live with grandparents at high risk for coronavirus complications and with limited access to health care.  

Even if the district offered in-person learning, most parents said they would continue with remote learning, according to a mid-December survey. Teachers hold live classes via video conference each day. 

Shelby County Schools uses periodic tests to predict how students would perform on the state’s annual standardized test known as TNReady. In 2019, the most recent year the test was administered, about 21% of students met state requirements for English and 27% met standards for math.

Correction, Feb. 3, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how many tests Shelby County Schools is administering this year to check student progress.

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