Covid Class of 2020: Grad rate declined, disparities increased

By: - December 11, 2020 6:00 am

(Image by McElspeth from Pixabay)

Since the pandemic began, educators and advocates have worried about a “covid slide” wherein students would suffer academically because of time away from the classroom. New data released Thursday by the Nevada Department of Education may confirm those suspicions.

And, like with so many things, the negative impacts was disproportionately felt by historically underserved students.

Nevada’s Class of 2020 graduation rate was 82.6 percent — 1.5 percentage points lower than the Class of 2019’s 84.1 percent graduation rate. The dip represents the first time the statewide graduation rate has fallen in at least a decade, according to the data on Nevada Report Card.

Clark County School District, which enrolled 20,907 of the 30,929 grads statewide, had a 83.2 percent graduation rate. That’s down 2.6 percentage points from the previous year.

Washoe County School District saw a less pronounced decline of 0.9 percent. The state’s second largest county graduated 5,253 students for a 2020 graduation rate of 85.1 percent compared to 86 percent in 2019.

Among the rural counties, nine increased their graduation rates. Rural counties graduating classes ranged from 10 students in Eureka County to 556 in Lyon County.

Graduation rates fell in all but one racial and ethnic subgroup tracked by the state. The 2020 graduation rate among American Indian/Alaska Native students remained steady at 74.4 percent — still significantly below the statewide average of 82.6 percent.

For everyone else, the graduation rate dropped, but not equally.

The shortest drop occurred in the graduation rate for multi-racial students, which dropped only 0.6 percent from 85.6 percent in 2019 to 85 percent in 2020. Also faring comparatively well was the graduation rate for Asian students. That dropped by 0.8 percent, but at 93.4 percent it remains significantly above the statewide average.

The graduation rate for white students fell 0.9 percent from 87.3 percent to 86.4 percent.

The steepest fall in graduation rate was among Pacific Islander students. That graduation rate fell 3.5 percentage points from 88.5 percent in 2019 to 85 percent in 2020. That decline almost reversed a steep 4.2 percentage point graduate rate increase the subgroup saw between 2018 and 2019.

The graduation rate for Hispanic students fell 1.7 percentage points from 83 percent in 2019 to 81.3 percent in 2020. This pushed the subgroup below the statewide average, which it had been above in the previous year.

Also disproportionately affected was the Black student population. The graduation rate for Black students fell 2.7 percentage points from 72.2 percent in 2019 to 69.6 percent in 2020.

Education inequity isn’t just about making it to the (virtual) commencement. According to the state data, significant disparities also exist when it comes to the types of diplomas earned by the new high school graduates.

Two-thirds of Asian students who graduated in 2020 received either a ‘career and college ready’ diploma (46.4 percent) or an advanced diploma (19.9 percent), meaning they met additional requirements beyond what’s needed for the standard diploma.

The reverse was true for Black and Hispanic students.

Among Black graduates, 76.1 percent earned the standard diploma, 8.7 percent earned an advanced diploma and 13.9 percent earned a career and college ready diploma. Among Hispanic graduates, 66.4 percent earned the standard diploma, 13.6 earned the advanced diploma and 19.3 percent earned the college and career diploma.

Among white students, almost half — 49 percent — earned the standard diploma and half earned either the advanced diploma or the career and college readiness diploma.

Altogether, 23 percent of the Class of 2020 earned a college and career ready diploma; 16.8 percent earned an advanced diploma and 58.4 percent earned the standard diploma. This year is only the second in which college and career ready diplomas were awarded. In 2019, the first year they were available, 16.8 percent of graduates earned them.

Board of Education Vice President Mark Newburn said he was pleased to see the overall percentage of students receiving the college and career ready diploma rising.

“That is what we were hoping for with (the college and career ready diploma),” he added. “We’re hoping it would become the de facto diploma.”

But Newburn also acknowledged the diploma’s unequal distribution. He referenced the Clark County Black Caucus, which has argued that schools with predominantly Black student bodies are not offering the courses needed to obtain the college and career ready diploma.

“There were roadblocks to certain demographics to the diploma,” he said. “We’re going to have to address that to get to where we want to be (with it) as the predominant diploma.”

Board Member Felicia Ortiz said the disparities were revealing. She stressed the need for an action plan to address the issues, asking, “Is there any effort planned to dig into this data further to find out what potential obstacles we can potentially remove?”

Department of Education administrator Peter Zutz responded that internal discussions are underway on the issue but that the graduation breakdowns are a meaningful dataset: “This is asking us, probing us, to ask more questions that would drive us to have a clear understanding of what’s going on.”

But he cautioned: “At some point we’re going to get to a place where quantitative data may run its course.”

Other graduation disparities

Beyond race and ethnicity, other disparities also exist when it comes to graduation rates

  • The graduation rate for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch fell 1.6 percentage points to 79.1 percent.
  • The graduation rate for students with an individualized education plan fell 1.1 percentage points to 66 percent.
  • The graduation rate for English learners fell 1.5 percentage points to 75.3 percent.
  • The graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness dropped 4.2 percentage points to 61.5 percent.

Just the beginning?

All Nevada schools abruptly transitioned to distance learning in mid-March as part of a statewide shutdown that brought historic levels of unemployment and instability for the economy and families alike. Districts struggled to adapt and overcome significant hurdles, such as having tens of thousands of students without computers or a reliable internet connection. Levels of learning and engagement during the last half of 2019-2020 school year were uneven (and ungraded).

Those factors likely impacted graduation rates for Class of 2020.

So what’s in store for the Class of 2021?

Clark County School District began — and has remained — entirely online. Washoe County School District brought elementary school kids back in person but higher grade levels remain virtual. Rural county districts are either hybrid or physically open due to their small size.

School districts began the current academic year better adapted for the pandemic. But the effectiveness of these models of instruction remains uncertain and a topic of fierce debate. Advocates fear the disparities between race, ethnic and income groups will only grow more dramatic the longer the pandemic lasts. Calls to physically reopen schools have continued, even as cases have skyrocketed across the state.

Last week state Superintendent Jhone Ebert told the Covid-19 Task Force that she wants schools to reopen as soon as possible.

Clark and Washoe are both expected to revisit the issue in January.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.

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