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Three new reports on student achievement during the pandemic all point to larger declines in math than in reading and widening gaps between the haves and have-nots. But describing exactly how students are doing academically is proving to be a challenge when school closures and pandemic experiences varied so wildly from state to state and family to family.

The data we currently have omits vast numbers of low-income children, who have been the hardest hit by the disruption. That’s because low-income students were less likely to attend in-person school, where diagnostic assessments were given, or take an online assessment at home. None of the currently available data is nationally representative. There’s also no information on the achievement of high school students, who are at risk of dropping out of the education system. Still, as imperfect as the figures are, they paint a dismal picture.

In a July 27 report, consulting firm McKinsey & Company calculated that 800,000 elementary school children were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, on average, compared to similar students before the pandemic. Those learning loss estimates are based on how students performed on i-Ready assessments administered in school in spring 2021. (The test, produced by Curriculum Associates, is one of many diagnostic tests used at schools to track student progress and identify children who need extra help.) Roughly speaking, that’s the equivalent of half a school year. The McKinsey report predicted that this generation of less-educated students could potentially reduce the size of the U.S. economy by $128 billion to $188 billion a year as they enter the workforce “unless steps are taken to address unfinished learning.”

The following day, July 28, the nonprofit test maker NWEA issued a more detailed report, which not only confirmed that students, on average, learned a lot less than usual during the pandemic, especially in math, but also documented how low-income, Black and Latinx students were falling further behind academically. 

NWEA didn’t express how behind students were in terms of months, as the McKinsey report did, but reported that students tended to score 8 to 12 percentiles lower in math, depending on the child’s grade, and 3-6 percentiles lower in reading compared with the spring of 2019. What this means, for example, is that the average third grader who took the test in 2021 dropped from the 55th to the 43rd percentile in a national ranking of math achievement. (NWEA’s customer base skews more white and more suburban than the nation’s school children which is why its “average” third grader started out at 55th percentile and not the 50th.)

“These are big numbers and a serious problem,” 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.

NWEA readily admits it’s understating the problem because many low-income students didn’t take its spring 2021 assessment, which was offered in person and online.

The NWEA report analyzed more than 3 million students in third to eighth grade who took its spring 2021 Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, another diagnostic tool used by schools throughout the year. It captured the academic performance of more than 10 percent of the U.S. public school population in 12,500 public schools that administered the test before and during the pandemic.

Many teachers across the country reported not teaching everything they usually do in a normal year and students wouldn’t be expected to learn what teachers didn’t teach. It isn’t surprising that students are falling further behind in math than in reading. Students primarily learn math at school but once they learn how to read, they can read at home and improve their comprehension skills independently.

It’s important to emphasize that students didn’t slide backwards, for the most part. NWEA documented that student achievement generally improved during the school year of 2020-21 but at a slower rate. White students learned somewhat less in 2020-21 than they usually do but NWEA noticed far sharper drops in how much Latinx and Black students learned during the pandemic school year. (Test maker NWEA used these race and ethnicity categories in its report: White, Asian American, Black, Latinx, and American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN).)

With different learning rates, the academic gaps between students of different races and ethnicities worsened. The achievement of Latinx students, who were already trailing white students by two or so years academically before the pandemic, dropped twice as much as for white students during the pandemic. For example, the average Latinx third grader fell almost 17 percentiles from the 43rd percentile on a national yardstick in math in 2019 to below the 27th percentile in 2021. Their white peers, by contrast, fell nine points from the 63rd to the 54th percentile. The gap between the two widened from 20 to 27 percentile points. 

Scores for a student in a low-income school, where at least three out of every four students live in families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, dropped about three times as much as for a student in a high-income school, where fewer than a quarter qualify for the lunch program. For example, third graders in a low-income school dropped 17 points in math from the 39th to 22nd percentile  — well below grade-level proficiency. In a high-income school, student scores dropped six points from just over the 70th to the 64th percentile. 

“The gaps are becoming chasms,” said Lake. “In some studies, some students suffered no learning loss at all. Other students are in dire circumstances.”

Lake’s organization gathered a group of testing experts around the country to review learning loss calculations and issued a report in July, highlighting 12 different estimates from 2020 and early 2021. Lake characterized these estimates as the “tip of the iceberg” because experts are predicting that student achievement will have actually slipped far more after factoring in students who haven’t yet taken the diagnostic tests. 

It’s useful to have a sense of the broad scope of the problem. But nailing down the precise loss for the average American student isn’t nearly as important as figuring out what each student needs. That’s the only way for schools to figure out which children should get the most attention and how to target the right resources to them.

Urging schools to take three to four months to catch up in math, for example, won’t be the right fix for most students. A first grader might need more help with reading. A high school student might need counseling to leave full-time work and return to school.  

“Policymakers need to zero in on understanding the variation and not settle with a blanket solution for everyone,” said Lake.  “The answer is going to be dramatically different from kid to kid.”

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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