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Is This the Year Students Finally Catch Up From the Pandemic? Educators Think So

By Caitlynn Peetz — September 25, 2023 8 min read
Students make their way to classes on the first day of school at Angeline Academy of Innovation for the first day of classes on Aug. 10, 2023 in Land O' Lakes, Fla.
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Educators are optimistic that this could be the year that students make up the academic ground lost during the pandemic.

And although students have shown progress since the dramatic and distressful lows that followed extended school building closures in the thick of the pandemic, there’s still a lot of ground to make up and a lot of obstacles to achieving that goal.

From the looming expiration of federal COVID-19-relief funds to continued struggles with hiring and retaining staff to students’ mounting mental health problems, experts say this school year could prove to be make-or-break in districts’ efforts to get students on grade level across subjects.

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“On the one hand, if we think the idea of these extra funds was that in three years we can close any additional gaps that were opened by COVID, that is clearly not going to have happened,” said Liz Cohen, the policy director at FutureEd, a think tank housed at Georgetown University. “On the other hand, the money has allowed for a lot of innovation and flexibility that could create an exciting opportunity for districts and states to really think about what we’re spending money on, and what is actually working, and how we could be more strategic about resource allocation.”

Despite those anticipated challenges, educators have high expectations for the 2023-24 school year, the third new school year since COVID-19 came on the scene.

In a July survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center of teachers, school leaders, and district administrators, 70 percent said they are confident their students will end the 2023-24 school year on grade level. Of that 70 percent, 25 percent said they were either “extremely” or “very” confident.

Among the respondents who said they are not confident students will catch up this year, more than half said they were “somewhat unconfident” rather than “very unconfident” or “completely lacking in confidence.”

Even so, nearly half (46 percent) of all respondents said they are less confident now than they were before the pandemic that students will reach grade-level markers. Nearly one-third of educators said their confidence is “somewhat” or “much” higher than pre-pandemic.

Public school leaders estimated that nearly half their students began the last school year behind grade level in at least one subject, according to data collected last summer by the National Center for Education Statistics, about the same percentage as the year prior. Data about the 2023-24 school year are not yet available.

But in the EdWeek Research Center survey this summer, teachers estimated that 53 percent of their students were on grade level in the subjects they teach by the end of the 2022-23 school year. The percentage was higher (62 percent) in schools where 50 percent or less of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator often used to measure poverty. Teachers in schools where more than half of students are eligible for discounted meals estimated that just 46 percent of their students were on grade level last year.

So far, recovery has been slow

Although the goal of a complete academic recovery is not impossible, educators’ outlook for the upcoming school year may be overly optimistic, especially for students of color, those from families with lower socioeconomic status, and students who are in special education programs, Cohen said.

“It’s hard because it’s one of these things where it feels like there’s two things that feel contradictory but are somehow true at the same time,” Cohen said. “Academic recovery is happening, and we also have a lot of problems. … If we’re talking about the kids who, for any number of reasons, we might already be the most concerned about, no, I don’t think those kids are all going to end up on grade level this year.”

The climb up is so very steep.

Student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” had plunged to historically low levels in math and reading by spring 2022, which was the first time students had been tested nationally since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

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The results showed that lower-performing students’ scores fell further than those of their peers, and Black students’ scores declined more than their white peers.

And educators themselves, in the EdWeek Research Center poll, said a wide array of issues have had a major impact on their ability to help students progress academically. Among the top issues: student behavioral challenges related and unrelated to the pandemic, student absences unrelated to illness, teacher stress leading to lower efficacy, staffing challenges, and students’ higher stress levels, according to EdWeek Research Center data.

Signs of progress

But researchers at NWEA have in recent months found students are regaining academic ground, based on their performance on MAP assessments, tests administered across the nation throughout the school year to measure students’ progress in subjects like math and reading.

For example, they found that, as of the fall of 2022, students in the elementary grades they studied had regained 15 percent to 43 percent (depending on the grade level) of the math progress they had lost since 2019. In reading, the gaps closed by between 10 percent and 38 percent over the same time period.

Kevin McGowan, the superintendent of Brighton Central schools in Rochester, N.Y., and the 2023 National Superintendent of the Year, said he, too, is confident students in his district and across the country will make big academic strides this year. But whether they meet pre-pandemic standards or go back to “normal” is a bigger question.

Students and the education field have changed since the start of the pandemic, McGowan said, so the standards students are being evaluated against may need to be adjusted, too.

“We ask if people think kids will catch up, but to what standard? Sometimes, it’s not better or worse, it’s just different—the pacing, the needs, what’s important—and if we’re responsive to that and the way we think about progress, I think we should be optimistic. ”

Potential problems ahead

While students’ progress was promising, the NWEA research also suggested that students would not be fully recovered academically by the time the federal relief funding runs out in 2024.

That’s a problem, because much of the progress so far can be attributed, at least in part, to the resources districts have invested in in recent years thanks to pandemic aid, such as expanding access to summer school, bolstering tutoring efforts, and better supporting students’ mental health, FutureEd’s Cohen said.

Districts are still struggling to recruit and hire staff members for many positions—from special education to elementary education—making it difficult to maintain programs that require additional employees and time. That could become increasingly true if districts aren’t able to offer bonuses or other incentives, Cohen said.

When federal pandemic-relief funds expire, districts will have fewer resources to continue academic-recovery efforts. The reality is that some programs and interventions will go on the chopping block, Cohen said. What’s important is ensuring the least effective ones are what get axed.

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There’s no universal “right” answer for what schools should try to keep or get rid of, Cohen said, because every community is different and has different needs and challenges. There is research-backed evidence that such supports as summer school, tutoring, and more or longer days in the school year are generally helpful for a wide range of students, though.

Half the respondents to the EdWeek survey said specific academic interventions made a major difference in helping students master material they otherwise would have learned during the pandemic. They cited tutoring, more or different social-emotional learning, and smaller class sizes as important investments. An overwhelming 80 percent said they’d characterize their efforts to help students address learning loss as successful.

Districts will need to spend the fall analyzing programs, materials, and procedures to figure out what’s working best for their students. That could include concrete evidence like the interventions’ effects on test scores or anecdotal evidence like student and staff testimonials.

That evidence will be needed when it’s time to advocate for funding—whether it be from state or federal officials or local philanthropists—to keep them going.

“It’s really going to behoove districts to try to figure out how to show what’s working so they can make that case, and we’re going to hit this really crucial point in which it’s like, we know we have things that work, we are seeing those results, but what’s next?” Cohen said. “Frankly, we’re going to continue to have to put our collective money where our mouth is if we say these are evidence-based practices that are yielding good results for kids.”

Superintendent McGowan said schools will need to make some “bold” decisions about programming, in some cases, choosing to move away from long-standing, widespread academic programs that are well-known but have shown minimal results to make room for more focused, smaller-scale interventions that yield bigger results for students enrolled. That could mean moving away from large-scale summer school or tutoring programs that are open to all students, to more targeted and rigorous programs that serve smaller groups of students more, he said.

“Let’s make sure that we have the courage to not go back to those programs just because they’re easy or more scalable or efficient, when we see there’s this huge benefit to doing some of these things we’re currently doing” McGowan said.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2023 edition of Education Week as Is This the Year Students Finally Catch Up From the Pandemic?

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