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Pandemic Learning Loss Heavier in Math Than Reading This Fall, But Questions Remain

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 01, 2020 2 min read
Images shows a data trend line climbing high and going low.

Early test results this fall confirm that the pandemic has taken a toll on students’ academic growth, particularly in math. But a new study from the Northwest Evaluation Association suggests we still lack a clear picture of the most vulnerable students.

In a new study released today, NWEA researchers found more than 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 who participated in NWEA’s MAP Growth test this fall performed about on par in reading, but 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math, compared to their peers in fall 2019. That means a student who performed at the average in 2019, or the 50th percentile, could have performed a year later at the level of someone ranked only at the 40th percentile in 2019.

Students in upper elementary school and those transitioning into middle school struggled the most. When researchers broke the students into five levels based on prior achievement, more than a third of students in grades 4-6 fell by at least one quintile in math. Upper elementary students also lost ground in reading, but to a much lesser degree.

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Those findings are in line with other early test results this fall. Curriculum Associates, a company that offers testing, curriculum, and professional development services, found more students in grades 1-5 scored two or more grade levels behind in math than in reading on its formative test.

Missing Students, Cloudy Picture

The NWEA study also found lower reading gains for Black and Hispanic students this fall, but author Megan Kuhfeld noted that it’s not clear what’s really going on for students from various racial and ethnic groups, or for students in poverty, because many of them never got tested at all.

Of the students in grades K-7 who were tested in 2019, Kuhfeld and her colleagues found 1 in 4 did not get tested this fall, across grades in reading and in math. Likewise, schools with higher poverty were less likely to participate in the test, which could skew the overall results.

Image is data showing Fall 2020 learning loss in Math

“I would say that the policy implications are massive,” said Chris Minnich, the CEO of NWEA, in a briefing on the results. “If a big district loses a quarter of its students, they would theoretically lose a quarter of their revenue from whichever states they’re in,” he said, adding, “I would also just say when those students do come back ... what’s going to be the arc of their education? We’re used to being able to put the kids in the next grade. Are we going to be able to do that, or is this a moment to think differently about what a previous grade level’s skills look like? ... Obviously, parents care deeply about moving their kids along on the grade level that matches their age, but is this a moment to think differently about how do we catch kids up, and how do we think about unfinished learning? I think those are two big policy areas where the recognition that we’re just missing some students will be really important as we end the pandemic.”

For a deep dive into the research behind the causes of learning loss in math during the pandemic, as well as how teachers and principals can ensure students keep growing and learning online and in socially distant classroom settings, check out our special report “Math Now: Problem-Solving in a Pandemic.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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