Student Achievement

The Pace of Learning Recovery Is Inequitable, New Data Show

By Sarah Schwartz — November 16, 2022 2 min read
Photograph of a young person working on school work.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Study after study on pandemic-era student progress has shown that kids who were already struggling in school were hit the hardest by COVID-related disruptions. Now, new data suggest that these students are recovering more slowly, too.

These findings are from NWEA, a research organization and assessment company that has been tracking the effect of the pandemic on students’ achievement. The group analyzed test results in reading and math from its MAP Growth assessment, with a sample that included about 8 million students across 24,000 schools in grades 3-8.

The test results reaffirm findings from the past few years: The gaps between high-scoring and low-scoring students widened since the beginning of the pandemic.

Most of the growing distance between the highest- and lowest-performing students was driven by decreases at the bottom of the distribution. High-scoring students’ test results dipped a little during the past few years, by about 0.3 points on average. But low-scoring students’ results fell significantly, by 5.2 points on average.

NWEA researchers also looked at the progress students made over the past school year, 2021-22, as many school districts launched initiatives for academic recovery.

First, the good news: Student academic progress during the 2021-22 school did start to rebound. For both higher- and lower-scoring students, student growth during the past school year more closely matched prepandemic trends than growth during the 2020-21 school year.

But even though students at both ends of the distribution are making academic progress, lower-scoring students are making gains at a slower rate than higher-scoring students. (See the NWEA brief for a full breakdown of the data.)

“It’s kind of a double whammy. Lower-achieving students were harder hit in that initial phase of the pandemic, and they’re not achieving as steadily,” said Karyn Lewis, the director for the Center for School and Progress at NWEA and the lead author of the brief. In some areas, she added, lower-achieving students aren’t making progress and gaps are continuing to widen.

See also

Illustration of an adult male leader manipulating the hands of a very large clock.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

The fact that the effects of the largest educational disruption in recent history haven’t been zeroed out in one year is hardly surprising. Researchers, policymakers, and advocates have repeatedly said that addressing effects on student learning will take time and money.

But the disparities in the pace of recovery mean that district and school leaders need to be intentional about how they target support, Lewis said.

“The implication for district leaders isn’t just, am I offering the right kinds of opportunities [for academic recovery]? But also, am I offering them to the students who have been harmed most?” she said.

Programs for tutoring or other services that require students to opt-in, for example, could run the risk of deepening inequities if only higher-achieving students take advantage of them, Lewis said.

Leaders also need to be cognizant of effect sizes, she said. Many effective academic interventions only move the needle slightly. It’s likely that most students will need layered supports to make significant progress, she added.


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
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.
School & District Management Webinar
The Key to Better Learning: Indoor Air Quality
Learn about the importance of improved indoor air quality in schools, and how to pick the right solutions for educators, students, and staff.
Content provided by Delos
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.
School & District Management Webinar
Leading Systemic Redesign: Strategies from the Field
Learn how your school community can work together to redesign the school system, reengineer instruction, & co-author personalized learning.

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 Q&A The 3 Teachers on the NAEP Panel Say It’s Time to Act on Drops in Scores
The results caught the public's attention—but the teachers say that hasn't yet translated into direct action to support schools.
9 min read
Illustration of a warning symbol.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty
Student Achievement Spotlight Spotlight on High-Impact Tutoring
This Spotlight will help you evaluate how tutoring can help with learning recovery, connect students with tutoring services, and more.

Student Achievement What Does Research Say About Grade Retention? A Few Key Studies to Know
Does holding students back help or hurt them in the long run?
4 min read
Young boy reading book at a desk with his head in his hands.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Achievement Letter to the Editor Students Need High-Dosage Tutoring
Education must address the crisis of illiteracy, writes the co-founder and CEO of Beyond Basics.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.