Most school districts saw declines, but the magnitude varied.
Those are the findings of more than half a dozen studies published in recent months examining the impact of the pandemic on academic performance. Across the board, they find large declines between spring 2019, before the pandemic hit, and spring 2021, a year later.
“The pandemic has been like a gang of tornadoes, leaving devastating learning losses in some districts and leaving many other districts untouched,” said Tom Kane, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.
Students made more progress over the past year, but it was far from enough to offset the losses already suffered.
“People were hoping, ‘Oh god, there’s going to be a lot of natural setbacks,’ and we didn’t see that last year,” Kane said. “Maybe it will happen this year, but I’m not sure there’s much evidence supporting that hope.”
The high price of distance learning
One of the most heated debates in the first year of the pandemic has been how quickly schools should reopen and how severe the impact would be if they stayed closed. We now have some answers.
A body of evidence reveals setbacks that became more severe the longer students stayed in the virtual school. These studies examined the impact of face-to-face and distance learning in the 2020-21 school year, when policies were very different. In Texas and Florida, Republican governors ordered schools to be personally operated starting in fall 2020. Elsewhere, and often in big cities, resistance and fear of the virus among teachers and parents kept schools virtual for a year or more.
Different studies draw on different sets of data and describe the magnitude of the impact to different degrees, but all point in the same direction:
A study using data from testing company NWEA found slight academic declines among students who quickly returned to face-to-face classes in the fall of 2020. However, the falls in achievement were far greater among those who learned from home, and they were most pronounced among high school students—poverty, mostly remote schools, widening long-standing racial and economic achievement gaps.
Students who were full-time in person in 2020-21 lost an average of 7.7 weeks of math learning. But those who were in virtual classes for more than half the year lost more than double – an average of 19.8 weeks.
This research was based on NWEA assessments of 2.1 million students in 10,000 districts and analyzed by researchers at the NWEA, Harvard and the American Institutes for Research.
A study from Ohio found that reading performance in school districts that were entirely remote declined, on average, by two to three times that of those who studied in person during the 2020-21 school year.
It took a close look at the third graders, as these students take reading tests in the fall and spring to gauge growth over the course of a school year. In the 2020-21 school year, those who learned remotely have fallen twice as far as those who were taught in person, compared to what would be expected in a year before the pandemic.
“The more weeks of distance learning, the fewer students learned during that period,” said Vladimir Kogan, a political scientist at Ohio State University who compiled the reports.
For math, the relationship was less clear in the Ohio data, with the declines being greatest among students whose districts used a mixture or blend of in-person and distance learning.
· A study of state test scores in 11 states by Brown economist Emily Oster and others found that districts with full in-person learning experienced smaller declines than those that operated remotely, with hybrid systems in between. That research, based in part on data Oster collected during the pandemic, also found that in-person schools were more common in districts that had higher test scores to begin with and had fewer Black and Hispanic students.
· A project called the Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration between researchers from Harvard and Stanford Universities, examined test scores from school districts in 29 states. It found that the average totally remote district lost more academic progress than others in the same state that were personally engaged, particularly in math but also in reading.
Using this data, Nat Malkus, an education researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, divided school districts into three “buckets” based on how often their students were remote or in-person. He calculated that students in the furthest grouping lost 60 percent of a school year in math, while those who spent the most time in the classroom lost 44 percent of a year.
In reading, the most distant group lost 33 percent a year, versus 19 percent a year for the most personally oriented group.
“There is clearly a link between the length of distance learning and student learning loss,” he said. But he added: “It’s also not as clean a relationship as everyone expected.”
That’s because there was tremendous variation across the country, with values varying widely in both remote and personal counties. And there was one big outlier: California, where schools took a long time to return but academic performance wasn’t particularly bad compared to other states.
Sean Reardon, director of the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford and project leader of the Covid analysis, said Malkus’ calculations look correct but stressed that distance or in-person learning only explains part of the variation.
His team is working to find out what other factors might account for the rest of the differences, such as: B. local coronavirus rates or economic conditions. He speculated that parents’ financial problems, illness and social isolation played a role.
“Reducing the pedagogical impact of the pandemic to whether or not learning occurred remotely or in person means missing out on all other ways the pandemic has disrupted the lives of children, parents and teachers,” he said. “There is a relationship, but it’s not the only one.”
High poverty, steep declines
Not surprisingly, the students who were already facing the greatest challenges suffered the greatest setbacks.
The educational recovery data shows that students in the school districts with the highest math poverty rates lost the equivalent of two-thirds a grade, compared to the lowest poverty districts, which lost just under half a grade. The same was true for reading, although the distance was smaller. High-poverty districts lost 31 percent of a class, versus 25 percent in low-poverty schools.
Analysis of the NWEA data found that high-poverty schools tended to be more remote to begin with, and when they did, they suffered greater declines than the low-poverty schools, which did the same.
The report found that 30 percent of the differences in math performance declines between high- and low-poverty schools were due to the increased likelihood that high-poverty schools were remote, and 50 percent were due to the effects of virtual learning.
“Distance learning was a major reason for widening the attainment gap,” the report said.
Several studies show that students are crawling out of the holes they fell into, albeit not all students and not as fast as needed to achieve the academic growth expected before the pandemic.
A national study using NWEA data from 2022 found that younger students’ learning last year was near pre-pandemic levels, helping students catch up. But given last year’s sharp declines, students still lagged far behind, particularly in high-poverty schools.
The research also found that the upswing was stronger in math than in reading, which is important since math took a bigger hit initially.
Also encouraging: Renaissance, another testing company, found that students have been growing academically over the past year at about what would be expected in a year before the pandemic.
But again, some student subgroups grew faster than expected, including Asian American, Pacific Islander, and white students. Hispanic, and especially black, students grew more slowly than expected, as did students with disabilities.
“What worries me most is the growing injustices that we’ve seen,” said Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA. “Everyone got hurt, but some got hurt more than most.”
Bigger kids, bigger problems
Several studies show that older students don’t recover as quickly as younger ones. This trend is obscured by much of the research because many of the state tests are only administered through eighth grade. But others are older students.
For example, data from Ohio showed that students in grades three, four, and six accounted for at least half of the lost ground in reading. The seventh years gained some ground, although not as much. There was little improvement in the eighth grade, and grades dropped again in the 10th grade.
In math there was modest progress in most grades, but in 10th grade there was virtually none.
That worries Kogan, the Ohio State researcher who conducted the analysis. “You’re talking about high school students who only have a few years left,” he said. “We don’t have much time left to get them back on track. … The older students should be our top priority.”
The 2022 NWEA research also found that younger students caught up much faster than older students.
The Renaissance dates, which include all classes, showed the same thing. In reading, growth over the past year has been about as expected or higher for fifth graders and younger, but lower than expected for all older.
The same pattern applied to math, with students in ninth grade and up experiencing slower-than-usual growth in the 2021-22 school year.
For these children, the downward spiral continues, said Gene Kerns, vice president and chief academic officer.
“Recovery actually plays out in very different ways for different children,” he said. “The children in our primary schools got through it much better. It seems the older the child is, the more lasting the effects are.”