Pandemic Learning Impacts Are Going Nowhere

Kids around the country are still suffering academically from the pandemic, but more than three years after schools shut down, it’s hard to understand exactly how much ground students have lost and which children now need the most attention. Some new reports offer some insights. All three were produced by for-profit companies that sell assessments to schools. Unlike annual state tests, these interim assessments are administered at least twice a year and help track student progress during the year. These companies may have a business motive in sounding an alarm to sell more of their product, but the reports are produced by well-regarded education statisticians.

The big picture is that kids at every grade are still behind where they would have been without the pandemic. All three reports look at student achievement in the spring of 2019, before the pandemic, and compare it to the spring of 2023. A typical sixth grader, for example, in the spring of 2023 was generally scoring much lower than a typical sixth grader in 2019. The differences are in the details. One report says that students are still behind the equivalent of four to five months of school, but another says it’s one to three months. A third doesn’t measure months of lost learning, but notices the alarming 50% increase in the number of students who are still performing significantly below grade level.

Depending on how you slice and dice the data, older students in middle school and beyond seem to be in the most precarious position and younger children seem to be more resilient and recovering better. Yet, under a different spotlight, you can see troubling signs even among younger children. This includes the very youngest children who weren’t yet school age when the pandemic hit.

The percentage of students who met grade-level expectations was “flat” over the past school year. This is one way of noting that there wasn’t much of an academic recovery between spring of 2022 and spring of 2023. Students of every age, on average, lagged behind where students had been in 2019. For example, 69% of fourth graders were demonstrating grade-level skills in math in 2019. That dropped to 55% in 2022 and barely improved to 56% in 2023. The drop in grade-level performance isn’t as dramatic for seventh and eighth graders, in part because so few students were meeting grade-level expectations even before the pandemic.

Math achievement slipped the most after schools shuttered and switched to remote learning. High percentages of middle schoolers are now below grade level in the subject, and they have missed out on foundational math skills, especially fractions and proportional reasoning. Students are generally learning at a typical pace at school, but not making up for lost ground. Depending on the subject and the grade, students still need to recover between one and three months of instruction.

One report comes from NWEA, which administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) Assessment to more than 6 million students. The spring 2023 data, released on July 11, showed that students on average need four to five months of extra schooling, on top of the regular school year, to catch up. This report shows a bigger learning loss in math than in reading, and indicates that older students have been more academically harmed by the pandemic. They’ll need more months of extra schooling to catch up to where they would have been had the pandemic never happened. It could take years to squeeze these extra months of instruction in and many students may never receive them.

In summary, kids are behind where they would have been without the pandemic, but some sub-groups are doing much worse than others. The students who are the most behind and continuing to spiral downward really need our attention. Without extra support, their pandemic slump could be lifelong–these issues are not going away anytime soon. Tutoring can certainly help with filling in those missing hours of instruction.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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