Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Researchers Agree the Pandemic Will Worsen Testing Gaps. But How Much?

At stake are the life chances of children from low-income families
By Drew H. Bailey, Greg J. Duncan, Richard J. Murnane & Natalie Au Yeung — May 04, 2021 4 min read
a boy trying to stop domino effect provoked by coronavirus pandemic

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 created major disruptions in schooling in the United States and hindered learning for a great many children. But did COVID-19 disruptions increase achievement gaps between children from economically advantaged and disadvantaged families?

This would be particularly troubling because children from higher-income families substantially outperformed children from lower-income families on standardized tests, even before the pandemic. That test-score gap contributes to differences in educational attainments and subsequent labor-market earnings.

Late last year we surveyed education researchers to find out how they expected the pandemic to change gaps linked to socioeconomic status in the short run (from before the pandemic to this spring) and in the longer run (between the springs of 2021 and 2022). Short-term forecasts may be useful in helping policymakers anticipate learning gaps in math and literacy as well as the diversity of learning needs teachers will face in the early months of the 2021-22 school year. Longer-run forecasts address the possible permanence of learning shortfalls among children in socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Forecasts may also help guide research efforts. For example, predictions that learning gaps are likely to increase sharply, and perhaps differentially for math and literacy, might catalyze research on how best to direct future investments in the education system.

Our survey asked for predictions of standardized-test-score gaps in math and reading in spring 2021 and spring 2022 for children attending elementary school. To anchor these predictions, we asked respondents to assume that in both subjects the achievement gap between children in the top and bottom quintiles of family-income distribution just prior to the onset of COVID-19 was 1 standard deviation. This corresponds roughly to actual achievement gaps in elementary school and amounts to more than one year of math and literacy learning for 3rd graders.

Owing to logistical and financial constraints, we opted to obtain our sample of researchers through readily available contacts. The first three authors sent links to the survey to current and former colleagues, advisory boards, heads of several professional associations, funders of education research, and, to broaden their reach among social scientists, the Twitter following of a well-known writer on human performance. We received 221 responses between Nov. 18 and Nov. 27 of last year. Apart from collecting the email addresses of respondents who requested a copy of our results, our survey was anonymous.

One of our most notable findings is the degree of consensus among researchers that income-based achievement gaps were going to grow between prepandemic months and this spring. The median forecast was a 30 percent increase in the math achievement gap—from 1 standard deviation before the pandemic to 1.30 standard deviations this spring. This change amounts to more than half the math learning that typically occurs across the entire 3rd grade year. The prediction for the reading achievement gap was only a bit smaller—a 25 percent increase over the year.

How successful will teachers and other educators be in making up for ground lost during the 2020-21 school year? One measure of success is the extent to which achievement gaps in spring 2022 revert to their pre-COVID levels assumed in our survey to be 1 standard deviation. Few of the respondents expected this to happen. In fact, median predictions of achievement gaps fell very modestly—from 1.30 to 1.25 standard deviations for math and from 1.25 to 1.20 standard deviations for reading. Indeed, a quarter of respondents predicted that gaps in both math and reading would be larger next spring than now.

The median forecast was a 30 percent increase in the math achievement gap between students from the richest and the poorest families over the year ending this spring.

If, as predicted by the education researchers who responded to our survey, achievement gaps do in fact increase substantially across the 2020-21 school year, many teachers will face the challenge of teaching students whose learning needs are much more diverse than prior to the pandemic. Remote learning limits the options for addressing the gaps so it is prudent to begin to devise strategies for meeting the learning needs of children when in-class instruction can resume on a large scale—perhaps in the fall.

While there is no magic formula, evidence from a variety of sources (including the What Works Clearinghouse) shows that thoughtful investments can make a difference. Some take the form of summer instructional programs; others of tutoring programs during the school year aimed at boosting achievement or attendance; still others focus on effective instructional strategies and making instruction coherent and consistent across classrooms and grades.

It will be important to study the effectiveness of specific strategies implemented by states and school districts in an effort to reverse pandemic-related increases in achievement gaps. However, enough is known about promising strategies to merit significant investment in reversing the educational consequences of COVID-19, especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

While the costs will be significant, not making these investments would be a serious mistake: It would jeopardize the ability of schools to improve the life chances of children growing up in low-income families and further increase the level of income inequality in the United States, which is already far too high.

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