At this point, we know the extent to which the pandemic has disrupted student learning. Study after study has shown the stark consequences: Children are less likely to have mastered important skills than their pre-pandemic peers. But now, new research provides some insight into emerging efforts toward academic recovery.
An analysis of interim test data from Curriculum Associates, a curriculum and assessment company, examined student progress during last school year, 2021-22. The period marked a transitional time for many schools.
By fall 2021, the vast majority of students were attending school in person again. “Academic recovery” was the watchword on everyone’s lips. At the same time though, COVID continued to disrupt children’s lives in and out of school, as Delta and Omicron variants battered students, teachers, and families, and forced some systems to pivot back to remote learning for days or weeks at a time.
Unsurprisingly, data from this year tell a complicated story. Despite some progress for students on grade level, when it comes to foundational reading and math skills, more students were below grade level at the end of last school year than were at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
And like other analyses of COVID-era achievement data, these results show that the gap between higher- and lower-performing students that expanded during the early days of the pandemic isn’t narrowing.
“We’re seeing that for students who are on grade level, there is some degree of recovery, and in some grades and subjects we’re even approaching pre-pandemic levels,” said Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research for Curriculum Associates. “But when we look on the other end of the performance distribution, students who are two or more grade levels below, we see some backtracking from 2021 to 2022 data.”
The findings demonstrate the complexity of the task ahead for schools. They underscore what many teachers and school system leaders have been saying for months: That simply getting children back into classrooms doesn’t automatically offset all the effects of long-term learning disruptions.
“A magical catch-up did not happen last year,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said in a briefing on CRPE’s recent, separate analysis of student achievement and the steps necessary for academic recovery, released this week. (Lake was not involved in the Curriculum Associates report.)
The data also emphasize the importance of targeting support in the right subject areas, and for the students with the most need, Huff said—an approach to differentiation that isn’t a new idea, but that is perennially hard to execute well, she added.
Broader positive trends obscure specific student needs
The analysis includes about 1.6 million students in grades 1-8 who took Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready diagnostic test in reading, and about 1.8 million who took it in math.
In reading, the percentage of students at grade level is holding steady in some grades, and increasing slightly in others, edging closer to pre-pandemic numbers.
Student performance in math trended up too, but in that subject, there’s more ground to make up. The drop in scores from before COVID to spring 2021 was greater in math than in reading—a trend that’s mirrored in other analyses of student academic performance during the pandemic.
But the broader, positive trends obscure student need in specific domains—particularly foundational skills, the building block skills that lay the groundwork for more complex work later on.
In reading, the percentage of K-3 students who were at grade level in phonics skills is still well below pre-pandemic levels, and the percentage of students who are below grade level has expanded. In math, the researchers saw similar trends across grades K-8 for numbers and operations—students’ ability to understand the relationships between numbers and perform the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
These findings demonstrate the persistent effects of the pandemic on student achievement, but they don’t mean that students aren’t making any progress. Take 4th grade math as an example. Spring 2022 scores are still well below pre-pandemic benchmarks. But from spring 2021 to spring 2022, students gained ground—with the biggest jumps made by Black and Latino students.
Still, Huff said in a call with reporters on Tuesday, “we should set our sights beyond recovering to pre-pandemic levels.” Big inequities existed between student demographic groups, even before COVID.
How can schools keep students progressing? Curriculum Associates also looked at school systems that outperformed these trends. These schools, unsurprisingly, put a lot of effort and time into analyzing and responding to student assessment data—so it’s unclear whether schools were teaching to the test or if students made genuine progress.
But they also shared some other characteristics that could provide guidance for academic recovery more broadly: Teachers in those schools had access to resources and professional development, leaders involved families and communities, and schools cultivated a culture of high expectations for all students.
CRPE’s report also provided some recommendations, suggesting that districts continue to (or start to) use their federal COVID relief dollars on proven academic interventions, individualize student support, and set specific goals for recovery. Surveys and analyses have so far shown slow uptake of research-backed strategies, like intensive tutoring, Lake said, though part of that is related to hiring difficulties.
Business-as-usual approaches may not work for students who are the furthest behind, Lake warned. “We should be moving mountains to help them,” she said.