Student Achievement

Students Aren’t Rebounding From the Academic Effects of the Pandemic

By Sarah Schwartz — July 11, 2023 3 min read
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Students aren’t gaining ground fast enough in reading and math to make up for the academic effects of the pandemic, according to new data released today from the assessment provider NWEA.

And in many cases, these academic gaps are getting wider.

The report, which analyzed test scores from 6.7 million U.S. public school students in grades 3-8, found that students are still making progress at a slower rate than their peers were pre-COVID.

The data suggest that interrupted learning time during the initial phase of school shutdowns has become a “compounding debt,” creating gaps that have made it harder for students to move forward, said Karyn Lewis, the director for the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA, and one of the authors on the study.

On average, students will need the equivalent of 4.1 additional months of instruction in reading and 4.5 months in math to meet pre-pandemic levels of achievement, the report estimates.

Analyses of student test scores have repeatedly shown severe declines in academic achievement. For example, the most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend test saw declines for 13-year-olds between the 2019-20 school year and the 2022-23 school year.

The key to closing these gaps, educational researchers have said, is to move students forward at a faster pace. Schools should address the essential skills and knowledge that students missed, while also covering current grade-level standards.

Districts have implemented a slew of academic interventions—many funded with federal COVID-relief money—to catch students up, funding tutoring, additional summer school, and more small-group instruction.

But accelerating student learning in this way is notoriously challenging. And these data show that, despite these efforts, it isn’t yet happening on a large scale. In fact, the opposite is occurring: Except for the youngest learners, students are progressing more slowly than their pre-pandemic peers—further widening academic gaps.

The trends exist across demographic groups, though racial disparities between Black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers that existed before COVID have deepened.

Getting ‘dosage’ right for academic recovery

The results came as a surprise to Lewis, who said she had initially expected to see some evidence that the pace of recovery had picked up over this past school year. Earlier NWEA reports, from 2021 and 2022, had showed some early signs that students were gaining ground.

“Now, looking back, I think it was naive to expect to have seen large increases in this year,” Lewis said. “There’s been this rush to return to normal, and I wonder if we’ve returned to normal too quickly, and if classroom instruction has not adapted.”

The problem, she said, isn’t that schools are choosing the wrong interventions. Options like high-dosage tutoring have a strong evidence base, she said. The problem is a matter of quantity.

“We are not aligning the scale of unfinished learning with the dosage of what we’re giving,” Lewis said. “One intervention alone is not going to cut it, and certainly not one intervention for one school year.”

Other research supports that theory.

In January, researchers at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research released an analysis of the learning recovery efforts of 12 mid- to large-sized school districts.

The districts had poured millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 recovery money into a variety of efforts: tutoring, small group instruction, extended school days or years, and expanded summer school opportunities.

But they weren’t able to exceed the pace of student growth that they had met in the past. That’s because these districts weren’t able to implement these interventions at the scale necessary to move the needle on achievement, the researchers concluded.

The NWEA results underscore the need for continued funding toward academic recovery efforts, even after ESSER dollars expire in September 2024, Lewis said.

“I know people are tired of talking about learning loss, and I know that it’s de-motivating to see that our efforts this year have not paid off as we hoped,” she said.

But the need is going to persist for years beyond the fiscal cliff, she added. “We certainly will not have ameliorated these gaps in that timeline.”

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