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Studies released during the second half of 2021 confirm that students learned a lot more in person than they did during remote instruction. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The highly contagious Omicron variant prompted Chicago, Detroit and several more of the nation’s largest school districts to shut down in-person school in early January 2022. But many more educators are trying to keep schools open not only to please working parents, but also to prevent students from falling further behind this year. 

I last wrote about the academic toll of Covid in the summer of 2021 when three major studies of student test scores from that spring indicated that students were learning less than usual and their academic achievement was behind where it has been historically for each grade. Exactly how behind students were depends on the test and how the researchers converted statistical units into months of learning, but it ranged from an average of a few months to a half a year of lost instruction. The slide was much larger in math than in reading. 

Most importantly, researchers found that low-income students were losing ground three times faster than high-income students. One study by the assessment organization NWEA noted that the achievement of Hispanic students, who were already trailing white students academically by two or so years before the pandemic, dropped twice as much as for white students by spring of 2021. 

But since so many students didn’t take spring tests in 2021, the accuracy of these estimates was uncertain. Now we have a new batch of studies analyzing how students did on fall 2021 assessments. Not every student in the nation takes fall assessments, but millions did, including many more low-income students who were back in school. 

The good news is that fall assessments confirm the size of the learning loss that was estimated in the spring. It isn’t much worse than we thought. Achievement levels also didn’t deteriorate further between spring and fall. 

The bad news is that many low-income children remain significantly behind. One December 2021 analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company noted that students in majority Black schools are five months behind where they usually are in both math and reading while students in majority white schools are now just two months behind where they have been historically. That leaves students in majority Black schools a full 12 months behind those in mostly white schools, up from a nine-month achievement gap in years past.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, who has been tracking estimates of how student achievement has slid during the pandemic.  “There are some kids who we should be very, very concerned about, and some subject areas that we should be very concerned about. Math, in particular, and early literacy.”

What’s clear from the fall assessment data is that efforts to catch kids up over the summer of 2021 weren’t widespread enough or effective enough to make a dent. (That was predicted in pre-pandemic summer school research, which found that summer school rarely helps kids catch up.)

What we still don’t know is whether kids are starting to catch up this school year. That information won’t be available until spring 2022 tests are analyzed in May or June. However, McKinsey already predicts that, based on current trends, students from high-income families could recover the lost learning by the end of this school year. There’s not the same optimism for low-income students. 

A second batch of research has measured the effectiveness of remote learning. As we suspected, it was bad. 

One study by a team of economists from Brown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Nebraska compared how students learned — in-person or remotely — with their spring test scores in 12 states.  Pass rates fell the most among students whose schools had shut down for two-thirds or more of the 2020-21 school year. 

Average pass rates, defined as the number of students who scored at or above the “proficient” threshold set by each state, fell only 2 percent in Wyoming, where schools mostly remained open. By contrast, pass rates plummeted 32 percent in Virginia, where many school districts remained remote for big chunks of the year.

Black and Hispanic children suffered the most academically in the switch to remote learning. In districts that enrolled over 50 percent Black or Hispanic students, switching from fully in-person classes to fully remote was associated with a drop in pass rates of 9 percentage points. Meanwhile, in a theoretical district without any Black or Hispanic students, the economists calculated that pass rates dropped by only 4 percentage points in the switch to remote learning. Poverty is also higher in districts with high percentages of Black and Hispanic students. Those students were less likely to have computers, good internet connections and parents who could also work remotely at home and assist with lessons. 

A Michigan study found that third graders who were enrolled in districts that remained fully remote in May of 2021 had such low reading scores that they would have been over three times more likely to be held back in school than students who were enrolled in districts that offered in-person instruction and over twice as likely to be held back than students enrolled in districts offering hybrid instruction. But because of the pandemic, the state’s new retention law wasn’t enforced.

An Ohio study found that students who were taught remotely during the 2020-21 school year lost a third of their usual learning growth. Students in districts that spent the majority of the academic year using fully in-person instruction experienced much smaller achievement declines.

What kind of student the child was before the pandemic mattered too. Academically strong students in the top 25 percent in Ohio learned as much during the 2020-21 school year as they did before the pandemic. 

It’s not clear whether younger or older students are suffering the most academically. Younger elementary students are falling behind more in reading than older students in many studies. But some studies, such as this Ohio one, show that older students are falling behind more. The large achievement declines in math appear to be hitting all grades. 

There is less academic achievement data for high school students, but considerable evidence that their absences and course failure rates have skyrocketed. The December 2021 McKinsey report predicted that an additional 1.7 million to 3.3 million eighth through 12th grade students might drop out of school in the coming years if historical correlations between chronic absenteeism and high school graduation prove true. 

“High school students should be a real concern for us, because they have less time,” said CRPE’s Lake.

Because schools are run locally, Lake expects wide variation in how well schools succeed in catching kids up this year. Lake is concerned that well-intended efforts to address students’ mental health and emotional well-being are coming at the expense of instruction. That could cause learning losses to grow even larger this year.

“We did see some districts taking weeks – months –  to get to academics, because they wanted to address some of these other issues,” said Lake. “Everybody knows that kids’ mental health, their social emotional welfare, matter. They can’t learn effectively, if they’re consumed by depression or anxiety.” 

“I think the best school districts are taking the approach that you can’t set everything aside to address mental health issues,” she said. “Engaging kids back in learning, giving them rigorous, challenging work is really important to their overall welfare as well. The trick ahead of us is not to place all the burden on schools. A lot of school districts are thinking creatively about how can we use community resources, organizations, mentors to start addressing this complexity of needs, so it doesn’t all fall on teachers.” 

There is a lot of hope in the research community that schools are investing some of their $200 billion in federal relief money in tutoring programs. But it remains unclear how many districts have gotten well-designed tutoring programs up and running. 

Lake’s organization, CRPE, along with RAND, a nonprofit research organization, are currently surveying school districts across the country to learn how they are helping students catch up. Those results are expected in February. 

This story about learning loss updates was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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