From the Field

New Studies Gauge Pandemic Learning Loss and Recovery

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.

Three 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, or learning, 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 percent 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 school age when the pandemic hit.

The most recent data, released on Aug. 28, 2023, is from Curriculum Associates, which sells i-Ready assessments taken by more than 11 million students across the country and focuses on “grade-level” skills. It counts the number of students in third grade, for example, who are able to read at a third-grade level or solve math problems that a third grader ought to be able to solve. The standards for what is grade-level achievement are similar to what most states consider to be “proficient” on their annual assessments.

The report concludes that 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 percent of fourth graders were demonstrating grade-level skills in math in 2019. That dropped to 55 percent in 2022 and barely improved to 56 percent 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.)

“It’s dang hard to catch up,” said Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates.

To make up for lost ground, students would have to learn more in a year than they typically do. That generally didn’t happen. Huff said this kind of extra learning is especially hard for students who missed foundational math and reading skills during the pandemic.

While most students learned at a typical pace during the 2022-23 school year, Curriculum Associates noted a starkly different and troubling pattern for children who are significantly below grade level by two or more years. Their numbers spiked during the pandemic and have not gone down. Even worse, these children learned less during the 2022-23 school year than during a typical pre-pandemic year. That means they are continuing to lose ground.

Huff highlighted three groups of children who need extra attention: poor readers in second, third and fourth grades; children in kindergarten and first grade, and middle school math students.

There’s been a stubborn 50 percent increase in the number of third and fourth graders who are two or more grade levels behind in reading, Huff said. For example, 19 percent of third graders were that far behind grade level in 2023, up from 12 percent in 2019.  “I find this alarming news,” said Huff, noting that these children were in kindergarten and first grade when the pandemic first hit. “They’re missing out on phonics and phonemic awareness and now they’re thrust into grades three and four.,” she said. “If you’re two or more grade levels below in grade three, you’re in big trouble. You’re in big, big, big trouble. We’re going to be seeing evidence of this for years to come.”

The youngest students, who were just two to four years old at the start of the pandemic, are also behind. Huff said that kindergarteners and first graders started the 2022-23 school year at lower achievement levels than in the past. They may have missed out on social interactions and pre-school. “You can’t say my current kindergartener wasn’t in school during the pandemic so they weren’t affected,” said Huff.

Math achievement slipped the most after schools shuttered and switched to remote learning. And now very high percentages of middle schoolers are below grade level in the subject. Huff speculates that they missed out on foundational math skills, especially fractions and proportional reasoning.

Renaissance administered its Star tests to more than six million students around the country. Its spring 2023 report was released on Aug, 9. Like Curriculum Associates, Renaissance finds that, “growth is back, but performance is not,” according to Gene Kerns, Renaissance’s chief academic officer. That means 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.

Math is rebounding better than reading. “Math went down an alarming amount, but has started to go back up,” Kerns said. “We’ve not seen much rebound to reading.” Reading achievement, however, wasn’t as harmed by school disruptions.

Kerns generally sees a sunnier story for younger children and a more troubling picture for older students.

The youngest children in kindergarten and first grade are on par with pre-pandemic history, he said. Middle elementary school grades are a little behind but catching up.

“The older the student, the more lingering the impact,” said Kerns. “The high school data is very alarming. If you’re a junior in high school, you only have one more year. There’s a time clock on this.”

Seventh and eighth graders showed tiny decreases in annual learning in math and reading. Kerns says he’s “hesitant” to call it a “downward spiral.”

The third report come from NWEA, which administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) Assessment to more than 6 million students. Its 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 graph below, is a good summary of how much students are behind as expressed in months of learning.

Like the Renaissance report, the NWEA 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 and years to squeeze these extra months of instruction in and many students may never receive them.

From my perspective, Renaissance and NWEA came to similar conclusions for most students. The main difference is that Renaissance has additional assessment data for younger children in kindergarten through second grade, showing a recovery, and high school data, showing a worse deterioration. The discrepancies in their measurement of months of learning loss, whether it’s four to five months or one to three months, is inconsequential. Both companies admit these assumption-filled estimates are imprecise.

One of the most substantial differences among the reports is that Curriculum Associates is sounding an alarm bell for kindergarteners and first graders while Renaissance is not.

The three reports all conclude that 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.

Jill Barshay is a senior reporter at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. This column was initially published by The Hechinger Report.