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What do we know about how kids are catching up at school as the pandemic drags on? The good news, according to the latest achievement data, is that learning resumed at a more typical pace during the 2021-22 school year that just ended. Despite the Delta and Omicron waves that sent many students and teachers into quarantine and disrupted school, children’s math and reading abilities generally improved as much as they had in years before the pandemic.

“The big picture takeaway is that learning mirrors pre-pandemic trends,” said Karyn Lewis, a researcher at NWEA, which sells assessments to schools to track student progress. Lewis analyzed how student achievement improved between fall and spring assessments, called Measures of Academic Progress or MAP, taken by eight million elementary and middle school children across the country. “In some cases, the growth is a little bit more than a typical year, maybe a 6 percent increase. It’s very small.”

Because of these small increases in the rate of learning, some students were able to make up as much as a quarter or a third of the so-called learning loss that they suffered during the school closures and remote instruction of 2020 and 2021. But even with those gains, student achievement still lags far behind what children at each grade level used to demonstrate before the pandemic.

“If improvements continue at the rate we saw this year, the timeline for a full recovery is years away and will likely extend past the availability of federal recovery funds,” NWEA wrote in a press release accompanying a learning loss report released on July 19, 2022. Depending upon the student’s grade and subject, NWEA estimated recovery to be as short as one or two years but surpassing five years in some cases.

Slow recovery: Reading and math scores stabilize and begin to recover for many students. Math scores continue to drop for middle schoolers

 A comparison of spring achievement scores before and after the pandemic on NWEA’s MAP tests. Recovery varies by grade and subject. Source: NWEA

A good analogy is a cross-country road trip. Imagine that students were traveling at 55 miles an hour, ran out of gas and started walking instead. Now they’re back in their cars and humming along at 55 miles an hour again. Some are traveling at 60 miles an hour, but they’re still far away from the destination they would have arrived at if they hadn’t run out of gas. It’s this distance from the destination that educators are describing when they talk about learning loss. 

One group of economists studied NWEA’s achievement data at the peak of learning loss in the spring of 2021 and estimated that fourth and fifth graders had fallen eight to 10 weeks behind in reading and math, respectively. Based on the subsequent catch up that NWEA documented in the spring of 2022, upper elementary school students might now be six to seven weeks behind. 

However, some groups of students, especially middle schoolers, didn’t make such good progress. Students who completed eighth grade in the spring of 2022 fell 18 percent further behind in math compared to 2021. This suggests their math learning losses might have expanded from 19 weeks to 23 weeks – almost six months behind – as they start high school in the fall. Seventh graders also made no forward catch-up progress in math. 

“Middle schoolers are where we see the most stagnation,” said Lewis. “It is certainly concerning. Those are the kids with the longest roadmap to catch up.”

Getting kids back on track academically is arguably one of the most important challenges our nation faces right now. The long-term economic and social costs are enormous if we fail. One group estimated that the U.S. economy could lose more than $128 billion a year, another worried that today’s generation of students risks losing $2 trillion in lifetime earnings.

This report doesn’t address why or how some students bounced back while others fell further. Eighth graders were in sixth grade when the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020 and their mental health might have been more affected by pandemic isolation. At the same time, the material that students need to learn in middle school is more complex and the rate of learning slows.

Third graders posted more sluggish progress in reading than fourth and fifth graders. These third graders were in first grade when the pandemic hit in 2020 and were just learning to read. Based on their rate of progress, NWEA estimates that it will take more than five years to catch up. Third graders were the youngest students analyzed in this NWEA report, which tracked only children who were already enrolled in school before the pandemic hit in order to measure learning losses. We don’t know from this report if even younger children are suffering more.

Low-income students appeared to make as much achievement progress as higher income students. For example, fifth graders in high-poverty schools and low-poverty schools alike both improved by nine points on math tests. But low-income children, who were already behind before the pandemic, lost the most ground and their achievement gaps with higher income children are still gigantic. 

“Students in low-poverty schools will likely recover faster as they have less ground to make up,” NWEA researchers wrote in their brief. 

We also cannot tell from this report which catch-up interventions, such as tutoring and summer school, led to better learning progress. NWEA is working with outside researchers and is slated to issue its first report later this year. Perhaps those reports can help shed light on the best ways to help children who are behind catch up – whether there’s a pandemic or not.

This story about learning loss 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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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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  1. If learning losses in mathematics could cost 128 Billion dollars per year, why do we not have math resource centers in every public library, and a purposeful effort to make math models and create learning opportunities outside of school to complement and even supplement what is learned in school. MathHappens Foundation puts a math “ad” in the newspaper, has a Math Room inside the free Nature and Science Center, is sending math models to educators across the US and abroad, providing kits and materials to public libraries across the nation, and funding tutors in our local area. We need and could readily have more public engagement, more opportunities to learn in our informal education and more resources in our libraries.

  2. I am troubled by your article that states “Pace of Learning Back to Normal.” When we talk about learning losses, what are we striving for? Are we just trying to get back to where we were before the pandemic? Are we trying to get students up to grade level? Your article is good but unclear as to exactly what we should be trying to attempt to do.

    In the article, you say “…reading abilities generally improved as much as they had in years before the pandemic. “The big picture takeaway is that learning mirrors pre-pandemic trends….”

    Does that mean that we should not be concerned with the learning losses reported by the 2019 Nations Report Card (NRC)? According to the NRC 2019 report, over 60% of students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade could not read proficiently at grade level. Does your report mean that we should not be concerned about that 60%? [for link to NRC data: GROUP-CENTERED PREVENTION – Elaine Clanton Harpine’s Reading Blog (groupcentered.com)]

    I direct a reading clinic for struggling and failing students, we have had students move up four grade levels in one year. Yes, we have published data to prove it. At my reading clinic, we are definitely concerned about learning losses caused by the pandemic, but we are also concerned about the learning losses that existed before the pandemic. Our goal is to bring all students up in reading to their “age level.”

    Which learning loss is your article concerned with?

  3. My agency provides afterschool programming for many rural public schools in a Western State. During COVID, our schools asked that we not provide online learning as it might interrupt students’ completion of district homework. My staff comes from big families (Hispanic/Catholic, Mormon) and we knew that there would be lots of kids at home with siblings during COVID. The older kids could teach the younger kids to read, or to read better, if they had books. So often, schools did not provide books – instead the learning was online and synchronous. We purchased books through First Book, a nonprofit, and designed in-home learning where we provided ‘choice boards’ for book reads that could be done by the student alone, with a parent or with a sibling. We knew there would be lots of hours and lots of siblings and, with guidance and tools, reading and math could be practiced for hours beyond what a regular school day of instruction would provide. We curated the books so that there was Spanish language options, books on rural place-bound assets like the night sky, agriculture, wilderness, issues of interest to our kids and families. The majority of our students made at least a full year’s growth in reading, and did not lose more than a couple of months in math. We need to see the home and family and the hours of time students have away from school as resources we should not continue to ignore. If we partner with the home, trusting in families’ abilities to guide learning, we can accelerate learning, but not if we continue to presume that it is only school teachers that can teach.

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