Student Achievement

What New Data Reveal About Students’ Math and Reading Performance Right Now

By Sarah Schwartz — November 04, 2021 6 min read
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New data on academic performance for 1st through 8th grade students this fall in reading and math show that across the board, students are not doing as well as their peers were before the pandemic. The declines were particularly bad in math.

The report, from curriculum and assessment provider Curriculum Associates, found that fewer students are on grade level in early reading and in upper elementary and middle school math than in years past. The numbers are lowest in schools that serve majority Black and Latino students, and in schools in lower-income ZIP codes. The data confirm what other analyses have found about the pandemic’s effect on student learning.

“The pandemic has affected all students, but not in the same way or the same degree,” Kristen Huff, Curriculum Associates’ vice president of assessment and research, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. “Unfinished learning has taken place in every elementary and middle school grade, 1st through 8th, reading and math. Unfortunately, those students who came into the pandemic at the greatest risk are at the most danger of not catching up from the dire consequences of the last 18 months.”

The results of the study aren’t surprising, given the disruptions to learning over the past two years. But they confirm that schools will have to serve more students with greater needs this coming academic year, and suggest that students will need continued support beyond this spring to manage the effects of the pandemic.

Drops in grade-level performance have unequal effects

To conduct the analysis, Curriculum Associates looked at the grade-level placement results for students in grades 1 through 8 who took the company’s diagnostic tests in reading and math in person in the fall of the current school year, and met other inclusion criteria such as attending a school with available demographic data. In total, the sample includes about 3 million students’ reading results and 3.4 million students’ math results.

The report compares these scores to a historical average of diagnostic test results in the same schools from before the pandemic—an average of results from fall 2017, 2018, and 2019.

In reading, 2nd and 3rd grades saw the biggest drops in the percentage of students on grade level this fall, compared to the historical average: 30 percent of 2nd graders were on grade level in the historical data, compared to 24 percent in fall 2021. Second graders also saw the biggest jump in students who were below grade level in reading, from 24 percent historically to 33 percent this fall.

These are “critical” years for students, Huff said, as they mark a transitional time when the focus of lessons switches from learning to read to tackling more complex texts.

But across the board, students lost more ground in math than in reading. And in math, it’s older students who felt the effects most. The largest decreases in percentages of students on grade level in math occurred in grades 4 through 6. This is also a key transition point, Huff said, as students start to work with more advanced mathematical concepts.

These decreases are reflected across all student groups that Curriculum Associates looked at: schools where the majority of students are Black, white, or Latino; schools in low-income areas; and schools in high-income areas.

But as the report notes, these decreases aren’t affecting all subgroups of students equally. Take 3rd grade math, for example. The number of students at grade level dropped 5 percentage points in fall 2021 in majority-Black, majority-Latino, and majority-white schools. But because of pre-pandemic inequities in student scores, that drop has a bigger effect on some schools than others. The percentage of students in majority-Black schools on grade level in math dropped more than 50 percent, for example, while the percentage of students in majority-white schools on grade level in math decreased proportionally less.

“Unfinished learning is not new for educators,” said Tyrone Holmes, Curriculum Associates’ chief inclusion officer. “But for individual students, this sort of compounded unfinished learning can have rippling effects over performance, grade placement, and long-term academic success.”

Curriculum Associates also looked at a subset of students who took the diagnostic test in person in both fall 2020 and fall 2021. In this sample, the report compares the same students across both years, rather than students in the same schools.

Overall, this analysis also showed that fewer students were on grade level. But results were mixed across subjects and grades, with students in some grade-level subgroups making improvements, like in 4th grade reading. The report notes that students included in this sample—those who were able to test in person in fall 2020—are not necessarily representative of students on the whole. They’re more likely to be white and attend schools in suburban and rural areas in the Midwest and South.

‘This is going to take many years to support’

As results from spring and fall 2021 state standardized assessments roll in, experts have urged caution in interpreting the data. Participation rates may be different than in years past, due to remote learning and quarantining. Academic results could seem better or worse than they actually are, depending on who took the test and who didn’t.

The caveats about missing test-takers apply to some of the Curriculum Associates data from fall 2020 to 2021, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, a consultant group to states on testing. For example, data that show students in certain grades or subjects improved—like, for example, in 4th grade reading—should be taken with a grain of salt. “That either means that some miracle happened during the summer,” he said, or that the data might not accurately represent all students.

Still, he said, these results from Curriculum Associates follow the same general downward trend that observers are seeing in state tests from spring 2021.

Large-scale results like these should send a message to state legislators that addressing unfinished learning may be a challenge for years to come, said Marion.

“State legislators need to not say, ‘Oh, the feds are paying for this, we’re good,’” he said, referring to money distributed through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. “I think they need to pony up, and say this is going to take many years to support at levels that we haven’t [before].”

Many teachers are already stretched to the breaking point this year. And they can’t be expected to carry this work alone, said Holmes, of Curriculum Associates. He added that it’s important to target resources to the schools and students who need them most—not all students’ scores were affected equally, he said.

Marion also emphasized that some schools will need more help than others. “Variability is sort of the watchword from last year,” he said. And while national analyses like this one can be useful tools and roadmaps for policymakers, teachers will likely need to rely on smaller-scale tests, like assessments embedded in units and tied to what students are learning. “They need something that will help them move forward,” Marion said.


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