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.
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.