COVID-Related Learning Loss Will Hit Younger Students Differently

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 26, 2020 2 min read
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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.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.