How much did the pandemic affect students?
The latest research is out and the answer is clear: dramatic.
In math and reading, students are behind where they would be after a normal year, with the most vulnerable students showing the steepest declines, according to two new reports from consulting firm McKinsey & Company and NWEA, a nonprofit organization that provides academic assessments.
The students did not just stop early; the setbacks accumulated over time – and continued, even after many students returned to the classroom this spring.
The reports repeat the results from Texas and Indiana, some of the first states to release test results from the last school year. Both states showed significant declines in reading and mathematics.
The results paint an alarming picture of an education system plagued by racial and socio-economic inequalities that have only gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic. An educational gap became a gap.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said Karyn Lewis, a senior researcher at the NWEA and lead author of the organization’s report released Wednesday. “It just keeps you up at night.”
For example, in math, Latino third-graders performed 17 percentile points lower in the spring of 2021 compared to the typical performance of Latino third-graders in the spring of 2019. The drop was 15 percentile points for black students compared to similar students earlier. and 14 for native students according to the NWEA report.
Asian and white students were also poorly achieved compared to the performance of similar students in 2019, but the impact was less severe with nine percentage points each.
The report used data from about 5.5 million public school students in third to eighth grade who took NWEA’s tests in the school year 2020-21 and compared their performance with similar students in 2019. The percentiles in the report ranked students’ performance for both groups against national norms before the pandemic. .
Perhaps even more worrying were the students most affected by the crisis, already behind their peers before the pandemic, and the further losses have pushed them further back.
In a sharp example, third-graders attending a low-income school tested 17 percentile points lower in math this spring compared to similar students in 2019, moving the average performance of low-income third-graders from 39th to 22nd percentile nationally. Results for their peers in affluent schools, who have historically performed in the 71st percentile, fell by only seven points, leaving them in the 64th percentile, well above the typical national average.
The losses did not just happen early. In a surprising finding, NWEA researchers found that students achieved some gains in the fall, but that the pace of learning stopped more markedly from winter to spring, even after many schools had returned in person.
“We were all caught off guard by it,” said Dr. Lewis, who suggested that fatigue from the pandemic may have played a role.
By the end of the school year, students were on average four to five months behind where students have typically been in the past, according to the McKinsey report, which found similar effects on the most vulnerable students.
Students who went to schools that were majority black or Spanish-speaking were six months behind where they would normally have been in math compared to four months for white students. Similarly, students attending a low-income school ended the year seven months after their typical performance in mathematics compared with four months for schools where families were financially better off.
The report also found that setbacks in reading accumulated over time.
“Reading was almost as bad as math,” said Emma Dorn, an associate partner at McKinsey and lead author of the report, which was released Tuesday and used data from Curriculum Associates, an appraisal firm. The report analyzed the results of more than 1.6 million elementary school students who took assessments in the spring and compared the results with demographically similar groups in the spring of 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Ms. Dorn warned that the results might be an underestimation because the data relied on personal tests and did not take into account students still learning externally.
The differences probably reflect a number of factors. Low-income and color communities tended to have less access to technology, and they experienced disproportionately large Covid-19s and higher unemployment. The McKinsey report also found that students at more urban schools faced greater setbacks than at rural schools, which were generally more likely to return to school in person.
There is some good news. Unlike images evoked by phrases like “learning loss,” almost all students achieved gains during the pandemic, just at a slower rate than usual. And the setbacks were at the lower end of some previous projections.
And while the new research provides a clearer overview of how students performed, the usefulness of measuring students’ performance has been disputed, especially in a year of upheaval and trauma.
“The problem with the narrative of learning loss is that it is based on a set of racist assumptions and focused on test scores,” said Ann Ishimaru, an associate professor at the University of Washington College of Education who pushed back toward framing the impact of the pandemic as children. “
“It is especially children of color who are presumed to be harmed by being at home,” said Dr. Ishimaru, who said her conversations with colored families suggested that some children preferred distance learning because they had nothing to do with micro- and macro-attacks and other challenges they face in school.
She argued that many children have learned a lot in the last year and a half – about loss and grief, about racism and resistance, about cooking and family traditions at home. “What if we were to focus on the learning that was found and then rebuild our education systems from that learning?” she said.
One argument for measuring student performance, however, is to document where help is needed.
“I’m less interested in standardized tests used to rank children, and much more interested in assessments for diagnosing learning needs,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.
He urged schools to hire more tutors and specialists and develop a personal plan for each student similar to the individual plans required for students with disabilities.
“We need that kind of approach for all children,” he said.
Research shows that frequent, intensive tutoring – one-on-one or in small groups several times a week – is one of the most effective ways to help students compensate for academic gaps, even if it is expensive. A report from Georgia State University estimated that tutoring could cost as much as $ 3,800 a year per year. Students compared to other options such as extending the school day for one hour (approximately $ 800 per student) and offering summer school (at least $ 1,100 per student).
“If you have a teacher with 33 children, it will not be a recipe to solve this problem,” said Dr. Noguera.