School & District Management What the Research Says

How Does Pandemic-Related Learning Loss Affect Different Subjects and Grades?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 09, 2020 1 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 tracked more than 500,000 computer-adaptive test scores for students in kindergarten through 5th grades. The scores captured reading and math tests given between fall and spring 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, but they followed different patterns. Kindergartners and 1st graders lost the most ground in general reading growth, but 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, ‘OK, 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 grades 4 and 5, reading is more about comprehension ... and we see very little loss in reading.

Christine Willig, CEO of Illuminate Education, serves on the board of Education Week.

From remote learning for young children to playground infection risks, schooling under the pandemic is raising a lot of questions for teachers and education leaders. This new research column aims to help readers understand what the research says—and doesn’t say—about our new context for learning. If you have a question, please send it to
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as How Does Pandemic-Related Learning Loss Affect Different Subjects and Grades?


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