Student Achievement What the Research Says

Students’ Academic Skills Are Rebounding, But Not Enough

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 06, 2022 3 min read
Young white boy wearing face mask during pandemic doing math calculations on a chalkboard.
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Students continue to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic, but the youngest students have lost critical reading skills, and those graduating middle school this year may not fully recover academically before the end of high school.

Karyn Lewis, the director of NWEA’s Center for School and Student Progress, and Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at NWEA, compared longitudinal data from more than 4.5 million elementary and middle school students who participated in the group’s MAP-Growth, an adaptive assessment. The researchers measured how quickly test scores of students who started different grades during the pandemic have rebounded to those of peers who were in the same grades in 2019.

They found that, as of this fall, students across the grade span had regained 15 percent to 43 percent (depending on grade level) of their math progress lost since 2019. In reading, gaps closed by 10 percent to 38 percent over the same time period.

Chart showing achievement gaps between pre-pandemic and pandemic.
Chart showing achievement gaps between pre-pandemic and pandemic.

“What I think is super interesting is that when we look at rates of rebounding, it’s uneven across the school years and subjects,” Lewis said. For example, math gaps have closed throughout two school years and summers, while reading recovery has been concentrated during the summers.

“I think there’s probably been a bit of a triage approach across subjects,” Lewis said. “There’s pretty clear evidence at this point that math has been harder hit than reading, so my hunch is that schools have leaned in on their COVID-recovery efforts and targeted math more extensively than reading.”

In fact, 2022 may have proved a make-or-break summer for pandemic recovery, as the vast majority of districts offered summer enrichment and remediation programs in reading and math in 2022. While prior research suggested the so-called “COVID slide” and more typical “summer slides” could exacerbate each other, NWEA found there was less summer learning loss this year than the typical year.

Even though federal and state pandemic recovery funding has helped support many supplemental programs, NWEA found on average, that students in none of the tested grades are on track to be fully recovered academically in reading and math before federal funding runs out in two years.

Learning gaps differ by grade

Students who started the pandemic in 4th grade and are starting middle school this year have recovered the most academic ground, closing pre-pandemic performance gaps by 38 percent in reading and 43 percent in math.

By contrast, 3rd graders this fall—who were kindergartners when the pandemic began in spring 2020—show the largest reading deficits of any age group, and have made the least improvement since then.

“It was particularly detrimental to be a kindergartner and to have school turn on its head when they were developing those foundational reading skills,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, prior data from NWEA and other groups showed older students initially had less severe learning loss. But as of this fall, 8th graders (who entered middle school in fall 2020) showed the least rebounding in math and only slightly better reading recovery than the youngest students. Based on their current progress, these students won’t recoup their academic trajectory before the end of high school.

Chart showing that the achievement gap will take well over two years for most grades.

NWEA researchers found similar recovery rates for students in high- and low-poverty schools, and for students of all racial and ethnic groups. However, Black and Hispanic students were harder hit by the pandemic initially, so they remain further behind than white students.

These schools are also facing greater challenges in finding the staffing and resources to support students’ recovery. As of October, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that about 3 out of 5 schools in high-poverty neighborhoods or those serving 75 percent or more students of color are operating short of teachers. By contrast, only 41 percent of schools in wealthier communities and 32 percent of schools serving mostly white students had at least one teaching vacancy.

“It’s great that we’re seeing these levels of rebounding, but we also need to keep in mind there’s a long road to go,” Lewis said. “The level of unmet needs that we continue to see and the timelines for recovery that we’re estimating here really point to the need for multilayered systems of support. It’s not going to just be classroom practice: It’s going to be additional interventions, additional outside-the-classroom activities that will be really necessary to get kids back on track—especially those kids that have been hardest hit.”

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