COVID-Related Learning Loss Will Hit Younger Students Differently

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 26, 2020 2 min read

Educators are bracing for students to return to school this fall with significant learning loss, after more than six months of disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. New research suggests schools will need to target interventions differently for students in different grades and subjects.

Researchers with the assessment group Illuminate Education analyzed more than 500,000 computer-adaptive test scores in reading and math from kindergarten through 5th grade students in reading and math between fall and spring tests in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. The data were used to project the difference in growth between the two years and the extent of learning loss in each grade and subject.

They found students in all grades and subjects had learning loss during the pandemic school closures this spring, but they followed different patterns. Kindergartners and 1st graders lost the most ground in general reading growth, but rising 5th graders lost the most fluency in reading aloud. Across every grade, students lost more learning in math than in reading, losing two and a half to four and a half months of learning, compared to a month or two in reading.

“It’s a little bit like riding a bike,” said John Bielinski, a co-author of the study and Illuminate’s senior director of research and development “If we were to start teaching a kid how to ride a bike and then stopped. And then three months later said, okay, can you ride a bike? They probably won’t be able to—they will have forgotten what they learned—but once they’ve mastered riding a bike, if they don’t ride for few months, they probably can get on a bike and ride again.”

“So in K-2 we see relatively dramatic losses, from the foundational reading skills that kids build on to become proficient readers like phonics and phonological awareness,” he said. “By grade 4 and 5, reading is more about comprehension ... and we see very little loss in reading.”

A similar Brookings Institution study of upper elementary and middle school grades showed that while the average reading growth did not change much from 4th to 8th grades, the range of students’ development widened, particularly in grades 6 and 8. In math, by contrast, students had lower math development as well as a wider range of achievement across the board. In math, too, the 6th grade transition year saw a particularly sharp learning loss.

The new study did not dig into which topics students were most likely to lose, but Rachael Brown, senior academic officer and co-author of the study, hazarded a guess: “From the standpoint of what’s happening in the curriculum, 4th-, 5th grade and into 6th grade is the introduction of fractions, decimals and all manner of rational numbers,” she said. “Well, we know that that’s where many kids struggle in mathematics, and take that together with COVID and things are just going to be at a difficulty level that they haven’t encountered before.”
See Also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Project Manager
United States
K12 Inc.
High School Permanent Substitute Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District
MS STEM Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District
Speech Therapist - Long Term Sub
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read