College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

The COVID Academic Slide Could Be Worse Than Expected

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 02, 2022 4 min read
Image of a line moving from point A in a disrupted path.
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Three years later, the COVID slide hasn’t stopped.

New research suggests students still haven’t regained the academic ground they’ve lost in the disruptions of the ongoing pandemic, and many high school students will continue to struggle after graduation.

The average high school junior who took the ACT college-entry test in spring 2021 fell from the 50th to the 46th percentile across English, reading, math, and science–equal to about three months of learning–compared to performance in 2020 and 2019. As a result, the ACT figures, two fewer students out of every 100 who took the test last spring are on track to do well in college courses after graduation.

High school students lost on average the equivalent of 3.4 months of instruction in reading, 3.3 months in math, 3.1 months in science, and 2.3 months in English even as schools continued to offer remote instruction through the worst of the pandemic. Students of all racial groups and across rural, suburban, and urban schools showed significant declines in test scores, ACT found, based on scores from about 600,000 students from nearly 4,000 schools in 38 states.

“The pandemic disrupted education, which then led to decreases in academic learning, which then led to test score declines,” said Jeff Allen, a principal research scientist at ACT and lead author of the study. “But there are other chains of effects. … We also believe that the pandemic has led to decreases in the social and emotional wellness of students that could also lead to decreases in academic learning.”

ACT researcher Raeal Moore said a survey of 25,000 students who took the college test shows gaps of more than 20 percentage points between the number of students who needed clear materials and assignments and timely feedback on their work during the pandemic and those who reported receiving it. “These are related in the sense that when students weren’t getting timely and specific feedback, it became more difficult to understand the content that was being taught to them, and it became more difficult to manage the assignments they were asked to do,” she said.

Allen cautioned that students also may have been less motivated to perform well on college placement tests in the last few years because many colleges across the country waived requirements for the ACT and its competitor SAT entry exams during the pandemic.

“It is very concerning that the way our [secondary] schools are set up right now is focused mostly on grade-level standards, plus trying to do a little bit of catch up. But, if we have these whole cohorts of kids who really missed out on two or three very essential grades for learning, just plopping them into high school courses that they may not be ready for is going to be a real challenge,” said Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist for the Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA. “I think that what we’re seeing now with some of the ACT results, is just the tip of the iceberg of college-readiness issues that are going to come in future years.”

Pandemic is a ‘seismic and ongoing disruption to K-12 schooling’

ACT’s findings come on the heels of a separate longitudinal look at academic trends released late last week by Kuhfeld and her colleagues at NWEA, which finds the pandemic a “seismic and ongoing disruption to K-12 schooling.”

Using data from more than 5.4 million students in grades 3-8 who took the computer-adaptive MAP Growth test, researchers found scores in fall 2021 fell by a fifth to more than a quarter of a standard deviation in math, and .09 to .18 of a standard deviation in reading, compared to scores in fall 2019, before the pandemic hit.

ACT also did a separate study across grades 5-12 in Arkansas, where they have a research partnership, and, as NWEA found, the learning losses were worse for lower grades.

“Based on what happened in January, it seems like we are not in the recovery stage yet. School districts are still having to do rolling closures and kids are still absent or being unenrolled at much higher rates,” said Kuhfeld, the lead author of the NWEA working paper. “I want to believe that by March, kids will be in the classroom most days and staff won’t be out sick as much, but … I’m not feeling super optimistic that this will be the school year of recovery as we anticipated after the last school year.

“It really goes to show that it is not like we could put in place recovery efforts in 2022 and just think, oh, by 2023, things will be back to normal,” Kuhfeld said. “This is really going to be a multiyear effort to help catch up kids.”

While schools serving fewer students in poverty mostly managed to slow their students’ academic slide in 2021, NWEA found high-poverty schools “continued a pretty dramatic decline,” Kuhfeld said. As a result, income-based academic gaps in elementary schools have widened by 20 percent in math and 15 percent in reading since the pandemic began.

NWEA researchers found the pandemic has caused significantly more damage to students’ long-term academic progress than natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

“I don’t want to downplay the impacts of Katrina that we know were on so many families, but it feels like the hits from the pandemic just keep coming,” Kuhfeld said. “And teachers keep getting more burned out. And for students and parents, the mental health side of things has gotten worse over time. Whereas [disruption from Hurricane] Katrina, I think, was a little bit more concentrated but with a period of recovery.”

Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek called the findings “bleak,” but said even they may be optimistic. NWEA’s data, he said, “downplayed the numbers of missing kids, but these are almost certainly larger losses.”

While Hanushek has not yet analyzed 2021 data, he found the learning losses in 2020 alone could cut students’ lifelong income by 3 percent, leading the United States to see a 1.5 percent lower gross domestic product through the end of the century.

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