One in five Anoka-Hennepin high schoolers failed a class this fall

    Snow-covered school buses are parked during the winter holiday in Cloquet, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

    More than 20% of Anoka-Hennepin high schoolers failed at least one class in fall 2020, up from 12% the year before, Superintendent David Law told school board members Monday.

    The percentage of students who failed at least two courses more than doubled, from 5% in fall 2019 to 13% in fall 2020. The data adds to mounting evidence from metro school districts that students are struggling during the pandemic, heightening concerns about academic progress and learning loss due to disruptions and distance learning.

    “It’s a problem. This is definitely a sign that students in distance learning struggled academically, much more than in-person, which is part of the reason that we’re looking to bring students back,” Law said during the school board meeting. 

    Anoka-Hennepin Schools — the state’s largest district, with more than 39,000 students — used both hybrid and distance learning this fall. Elementary schools spent roughly two months in hybrid learning before moving to distance learning for the last week of the term, and middle and high schools were in hybrid learning for about a month and in distance learning the rest of the term.

    Roughly 30% of students districtwide opted for full-time distance learning for the entire fall term, Law said.

    Students in full-time distance learning were slightly more likely to receive failing grades. In fall 2020, 25% of students in full-time distance learning failed at least one class, compared to 21% of students in hybrid learning, according to Law’s presentation.

    Younger students’ learning was also affected. The percentage of first graders meeting early reading benchmarks on a standardized assessment declined from nearly 40% in fall 2019 to 20% in fall 2020, Law said. In second through eighth grade, reading proficiency didn’t change from 2019, but math proficiency declined from 50% to 42%.

    “This is a predictor for what we might see on MCA tests, with disrupted education,” Law said, referring to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, the statewide standardized tests required by federal law.

    Under Gov. Tim Walz’s recent update to the state’s Safe Learning Plan — which allows all elementary schools to resume in-person learning with safety measures this month — Anoka-Hennepin plans to gradually resume in-person classes throughout the spring, beginning with the youngest students, Law said. Preschool through second grade are slated to start full-time, in-person classes on Jan. 19.

    The Anoka-Hennepin teacher’s union opposes the move, calling on the district to keep students in distance learning until teachers are vaccinated and community transmission of COVID-19 declines.

    “We believe teachers and students would be placed in danger by reopening schools as the Safe Learning Plan now indicates,” the union said in a written statement.

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.