Student Achievement

Student Learning Declined This Year, Especially for the Most Vulnerable Kids, Data Shows

By Alyson Klein — July 28, 2021 2 min read
Photograph of a young girl reading, wearing headphones and working at her desk at home with laptop near by.
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Students across the country learned at a more sluggish pace than usual during the very atypical 2020-21 school year. But maybe more distressing, the already-yawning achievement gap widened, with Black, Latino, American Indian, and Alaska Native students losing ground faster than their White and Asian peers.

That’s according to an analysis of MAP Growth data released by NWEA, a nonprofit research organization that offers assessments to measure growth and proficiency. The MAP growth test—which can be offered by states or districts to help identify students’ learning needs—was administered to about 5.5 million public students in fall, winter, and spring of last school year.

The data presents one of the clearest snapshots yet of how students performed in a year marked by widespread virtual learning, hybrid instruction, and growing concerns about social justice issues.

The score declines were evident across the board. For instance, in reading, students in grades 3 through 8 started the school year in roughly the same place, academically, as kids entering those grades back in the 2018-19 school year (the most recent, pandemic-free school year.) But the 2020-21 students ended the year roughly 3 to 6 percentile points behind their 2018-19 counterparts.

In math, the 2020-21 students were already struggling to make up ground. They entered the school year behind where other kids in the same grades had been in 2018-19. And by the end of the year, they were behind their 2018-19 counterparts by 8 to 12 percentile points.

For example, back in the spring of 2019, the median percentile reading score for 3rd graders was 57. That dropped to 51 in the 2020-21 school year. And in math, the median percentile score for 3rd-graders was 55 in the spring of 2019. It fell to 43 this spring.

Black and Latino students experienced greater declines than their white and Asian peers. For instance, Black and Latino 3rd graders fell 10 points behind their 2019 counterparts in reading, while White students were only 4 points behind the 2019 kids and Asian students were just 5 points behind.

The declines were even more evident in math. For instance, Latino 3rd graders scored 17 points below their 2019 counterparts, while Black 3rd graders were 15 points behind. White and Asian American students were nine points behind the 2019 kids.

Students in high-poverty schools also fell further behind their more affluent peers. For instance, in math, 4th graders in schools with a high concentration of low-income families experienced a 14 percent decline in math scores compared with similar students in 2019. Fourth graders in low poverty schools only saw a 6-point decline.

So what should school districts do to help kids catch up? NWEA recommends urging families to help identify kids who completely disconnected from school during the pandemic; work to accelerate learning for all kids, particularly students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities; and expand instructional time through high-dose tutoring and summer programs. What’s more, schools should continue to invest in remote learning and supporting students’ mental health.

“Our collective call to action is clear: next year cannot be a normal year,” the report concluded. “We cannot return to the classroom and do the same things we’ve always done and expect to see a different outcome. Instead we must use this critical moment in education to radically rethink how programs, policies, and opportunities are designed and be fiercely committed to prioritizing the communities most impacted.”

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