Student Achievement

Students’ Pandemic-Related Academic Loss Has Slowed for Some, Research Finds

By Ileana Najarro — August 25, 2022 4 min read
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While students lost less ground academically on average in the 2021-22 school year compared to the first year of the pandemic, many students—especially those in remote learning for longer periods of time—still sustained serious losses, concludes a new report.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization, analyzed studies on students’ academic progress released since summer 2021 as part of a series of reports on the pandemic’s impact on student learning. The studies offer a snapshot of the various trajectories of students’ reading and math skills throughout the pandemic, though they are drawn from different states and populations.

Among the key findings are that low-income children and students of color, especially Black and Hispanic kids, missed out on academic gains the more time they spent in remote instruction. And even when schools reopened, intermittent closures tied to COVID-19 breakouts and issues with both teacher and student attendance made continuity of learning difficult, said Paul Hill, the founder of the CRPE.

Prior to the 2021-22 school year, questions abounded about who would opt for remote instruction and whether students pursuing that option would get the same quality educational experience as peers attending school in-person, including being able to participate in extracurriculars.

The new CRPE analysis attempts to paint a national picture of the continuing academic effects of the pandemic this past school year. Here are some of itstakeaways:

  • Learning delays have been mitigated slightly. A study from Ohio found that 3rd graders were four to six months behind normal progress in reading in fall 2020, but only one and a half months behind when tested in fall 2021. Separately, a national study based on data from one curriculum provider found that, on average, learning delays continued but were smaller in 2020–2021.
  • Remote learning is correlated with students falling behind overall. In general, students fell farther below grade level for every month they were not attending school in person. One study based on a national database estimated that fall 2021 test scores for grades 3–8 were 0.27 standard deviations (approximately a year’s learning) lower in reading, and 0.14 standard deviations lower in mathematics than in fall 2019. (The question of which age group experienced the most learning delays is still unclear.)

    Hill, from CRPE, said that there are still open questions around the quality of remote instruction available in the 2021-22 school year. Though many have argued that schools should have stayed open throughout the pandemic, Hill noted that those schools that closed were often in areas with greater incidence of the disease and within communities reporting greater numbers of deaths.

  • Students from low-income families and students of color were more likely to be in remote instruction longer and suffered greater learning delays. The report cited a national study and a Michigan-based study that found that gaps in the percentages of children far below grade level widened, especially between students who are advantaged, white, and Asian compared to their peers who are low income, Black, and Hispanic, or who have disabilities. Black children in schools that were closed for long periods and relied on remote learning experienced major learning delays. And Black students who lost the most days of instruction generally attended racially isolated schools.
  • Absenteeism impacted in-person instruction and learning recovery efforts. Chronic student absenteeism resulted in enrollment declines that were especially acute in certain major cities, the report found. In particular, “attendance was often spotty—or nonexistent—after districts delayed the date for opening buildings or closed classrooms or schools for virus outbreaks,” the report found. In remote instruction, it often wasn’t even clear whether students were truly logging on to class.

There were also a few notable silver linings in the report. A handful of studies from Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio identified grade levels and subjects where learning delays were smaller for low-income or minority children than for their white peers. And a North Carolina report found that academic growth rates for special education students during the pandemic were comparable to prepandemic student progress.

Moving forward, Hill from CRPE hopes that schools are able to better tailor their resources to students—such as how they use time and how they focus their curriculum.

“Different kids in different schools in different localities will have had very different experiences and suffer different degrees of loss, and people in localities and states have to expect differences,” Hill said. “One size does not fit all here in terms of interventions.”

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