The Impact of School Closures and Emergency Remote Learning on Grade 12 Students in Spring 2020: Preliminary Findings from Toronto

The Impact of School Closures and Emergency Remote Learning on Grade 12 Students in Spring 2020: Preliminary Findings from Toronto was written by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Robert S. Brown in collaboration with the research department of the Toronto District School Board.

New TDSB data provides first look into student outcomes during emergency remote learning

Despite concerns about the shift to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that more students in Toronto were positioned to achieve the number of credits they need to graduate after initial school closures in spring 2020 compared with previous years. Additionally, overall course grades increased and dropouts decreased. This report provides, for the first time in Canada, insights into the experience of high school students forced into emergency remote learning due to the pandemic.

The Impact of School Closures and Emergency Remote Learning on Grade 12 Students in Spring 2020: Preliminary Findings from Toronto draws on a unique, large-scale longitudinal data set from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) of almost 34,000 students who were in their fourth year of high school in either 2018/19 or 2019/20. The report examines the impacts of school closures and remote instruction that took place between March and June of 2020, including analyses of course grades and accumulation of the credits required for high school graduation. Students from the 2019/20 year impacted by emergency remote learning are compared with students from the previous year, including analyses of the impact on specific subgroups such as students with special needs and first-generation students.

The proportion of students achieving 30 or more credits (used as a proxy for graduation) by the end of their fourth year in high school rose by approximately 3.5% in the emergency remote period in spring 2020. That amounts to 650 additional graduates compared to the year before. On average, course grades increased by more than 4%, with the greatest increases coming from students in the middle achievement group — those who, in other years, might have been one or two credits shy of 30 credits in four years or would have had marks between 60 and 75%.

These findings likely reflect policy changes at both the provincial and school-board levels aimed at supporting student achievement during a challenging time. When in-person schooling shut down in March 2020, the Ontario government instituted a policy which stated that students’ grades could not decline from that point forward in the school year. Additionally, the TDSB reduced the weighting of final exams and instituted new teaching approaches to adapt to the online shift.

While the majority of grade and credit increases took place among middle achieving students, there were several groups of typically lower achieving students that saw more significant gains. Male students saw greater increases than female students and students whose parents did not attend university saw greater gains than those whose parents did attend. Additionally, students with an Individual Education Plan, who had not gone through the formal special education Identification, Placement and Review Committee process, achieved more credits and improved grades more than students with an identified exceptionality.

These findings suggest that efforts to insulate students from the worst potential outcomes of the sudden shift to remote learning were successful in the short term. However, concerns about knowledge and skill gaps among graduates remain. With an increase in credit accumulation and improved grades, colleges and universities may see a larger pool of students looking to enter postsecondary education. Postsecondary institutions should identify, employ and evaluate strategies for addressing skill and knowledge gaps among entering students in the fall of 2021 and likely in 2022 as well.

This report is the first of two papers supported by HEQCO to examine the impacts of the emergency closure between March and June of 2020 on high school outcomes. A followup to this report will explore whether and how school closures and emergency remote learning have led to changes in postsecondary applications.