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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Webinar
Close the Gender Gap: Getting Girls Excited about STEM
Join female STEM leaders as they discuss the importance of early cheerleaders, real life role models, and female networks of support.
Content provided by Logitech
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Achievement What the Research Says Global Academic Loss Persists Nearly Three Years Into the Pandemic
An analysis of data from 15 countries finds students are still behind by more than a third of a year of schooling.
5 min read
Young children lined up, some are faded into the background
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and GlobalStock/E+
Student Achievement Q&A ED's Research Chief: We Don't Understand Our Most Struggling Learners
A federal education research agency launches new programs to study pandemic learning recovery and a call to fill data gaps
3 min read
Illustration of data analysis.
sesame/DigitalVision Vectors
Student Achievement Why Districts’ Initial Learning Recovery Efforts Missed the Mark
Research suggests schools struggled to meet initial targets, regardless of the intervention recipe they selected.
4 min read
Illustration of a student desk in the middle of a maze.
Collage via iStock/Getty
Student Achievement Spotlight Spotlight on Learning Recovery & Tiered Supports
This Spotlight will help you integrate academic recovery into the school day, evaluate best practices for online tutoring, and more.