Updated Jul 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Students need extra months of school to close COVID learning gaps: Study

Sixth graders raising their hands as a teacher speaks during the first day of class at an elementary school in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, in August 2022.

California sixth graders raising their hands as a teacher speaks during the first day of class in August 2022. Photo: Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

U.S. elementary and middle-school students' academic progress last school year at best stalled, leaving behind lingering achievement gaps set off by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new NWEA study.

Why it matters: While billion of dollars have been spent to help them recover from pandemic education setbacks, the nation's youngest students are academically behind — and may require more months of schooling just to catch up.

  • The analysis reinforces recent data that showed U.S. 13-year-olds' math and reading scores had dropped to their lowest levels in decades.

Details: NWEA researchers analyzed scores for approximately 6.7 million students between third and eighth grade at 20,000 public schools on NWEA's assessments for reading and math.

  • The results were then compared to scores from around 11 million students in the same grades who were tested during the 2016–2017 and 2018–2019 academic years.

By the numbers: Five out of the six cohorts of students considered in the new study were behind in math and reading compared to pre-pandemic scores.

  • Six, seventh and eighth graders in the study fell short of pre-pandemic averages for achievement gains in reading by between 16% and 19%, while fifth graders were behind pre-pandemic averages for achievement gains in math by 15%.
  • The researchers estimated that the average U.S. student requires 4.1 months of additional schooling to catch up in reading and 4.5 months for math.
  • Black and Hispanic students would require around a month more to return to pre-pandemic levels, though those levels were influenced by educational inequities that have only expanded over the last three years, the researchers said.

What they're saying: Karyn Lewis, the study's lead researcher and the director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA, told Axios on Wednesday that the learning gaps can be magnified as students move up in grades.

  • "What I anticipate going forward is we'll have continued below-average rates of gains because we aren't filling in and building a solid foundation that kids need to be able to take on grade-level instruction," she said.
  • Lewis said she doesn't believe the study results should be seen as coming despite the federal dollars set aside to help close pandemic educational gaps, as it's unknown how students would be fairing academically without the funding.
  • "I think it would be much more dire," she said. "This is not the time to withdraw federal support. It's time to double-down so we can actually get kids the right dosage to get caught up."

The big picture: For months, school districts, particularly those in economically-disadvantaged and minority communities, have been attempting to fill those pandemic-era learning deficits while facing a national teacher shortage exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • 45% of public schools around the country were operating without a full teaching staff at the beginning of last academic year, according to limited federal data published in December.
  • Meanwhile, the Biden administration has said that schools can use pandemic relief funds to open and hire for new positions, increase pay or expand apprenticeship programs. But school districts also have to consider whether they can support those salaries or positions after the funds expire in September 2024, Axios' Jennifer A. Kingson reports.
  • Over the last three years, schools also experienced heightened levels of chronic absenteeism, defined as students missing 10% or more of days for any reason.

The bottom line: "I think we need to have some grace and space to understand that on the ground, schools are trying their best," Lewis said. "We just can't have expected to have seen this quick turnaround and a magic wand to address all these issues in a year or two."

  • "We have a long road ahead of us," she said.

Go deeper: Schools look to get back on track after 2 terrible years

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from Karyn Lewis.

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