Pandemic Learning Loss: Two Years Later
Looking back on two years of learning loss
Learning loss refers to the possibility that students may experience a loss of literacy and numeracy skills due to being away from a formal learning environment for extended periods of time. Non-traditional student learning environments such as remote learning can contribute to the loss of literacy skills.
In an effort to keep students, parents, and teachers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in early 2020, the classroom changed to cater to this end. More students than ever were working from home and teachers had to adjust their lesson plans to encompass remote learning. In the face of dealing with so many new factors, students fell behind in learning goals.
According to Sean Reardon, the Professor in Poverty and Inequality at the GSE and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), this was a nationwide issue. Reardon led the data analysis behind the Education Recovery Scorecard.
“In some school districts, students fell behind by as much as a grade level or more. In other school districts, the difference between the 2019 and 2022 test scores was essentially zero,” said Reardon. “There was enormous variability in the pandemic’s impact on kids’ academic performance.”
While this kind of unfinished learning may have only come from a year of disturbance, the results can still be felt three years later. According to research by McKinsey, the pandemic impacted K-12 learning by leaving students about five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Not only did it increase learning loss, but it also widened inequality, opportunity, and achievement gaps. To illustrate this point, UNICEF reports that students from low-income families or those with disabilities were less able to access remote learning than their peers.
High-income students are less likely to suffer from learning loss than low-income students, who are historically disadvantaged regardless. In addition, about 35% of parents reported that they were “very or extremely concerned” about their children’s mental health. In general, 2020 has had a lasting effect on learners at every level. Here are five additional ways that the pandemic increased learning loss:
- Starting behind the curve: It’s typical for students to forget some of their academic progress during the summer, but this effect intensified post-pandemic.
- Summer school is impacted: Because of budget cuts and health concerns, summer programs were canceled which can have long-term effects on learning.
- Disparity deepened: For underprivileged students, the pandemic increased the divide between them and those with privilege.
- The mental health crisis continues: Studies have found that ongoing or chronic stress caused by the pandemic, from financial instability to reduced social and educational engagement, can ultimately interfere with neurological development.
- Staffing issues: The pandemic has affected the staffing of educational institutions, which has continued to bleed into the summer when school programs still need qualified teachers to support students in the off months.
The past three years have brought many new issues and are likely to continue to challenge students and instructors alike.
That brings us to the current day, where the educational landscape is much different than it was pre-pandemic. Much of the progress is thanks to extra funds that the government has allocated to K-12 schools. In 2020, $13.5 billion was distributed by The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Recently in 2023, Congress approved additional funds to assist schools in closing the learning gap.
However, these stimulus funds were only part of the solution. Teachers and administrators had to be creative in their solutions while catching their students up to where they needed to be. As remote learning continues to be popular, learning loss is a continued possibility. According to Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy, “researchers examined testing data from 2.1 million students, between third and eighth grade, in nearly ten thousand schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia. School districts that remained remote for much of 2020-21 experienced the largest declines and will need to pivot quickly to avoid permanent losses in student achievement.”
Learning loss due to remote learning varied widely from school district to school district. More affluent districts were able to provide technology and other supplemental learning strategies and programs that low-income students did not have access to. According to research by the Education Recovery Scorecard, “There were drastic differences [in test scores and] in performance among districts in each state, they found, with a number of districts actually doing better since the pandemic, a small number doing much worse, and most seeing some declines.”
The learning loss also contributes to widening inequalities in education in general. A study published in April 2022 called “Internet access and its role on educational inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic” reports that the Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed and deepened many social inequalities and vulnerabilities. The study found that the pandemic has not only widened gaps but worsened educational inequalities. It reports that a possible solution is to increase the level of income per capita and reduce income inequality. Those in the industry know that this is easier said than done.
Schools and scores
But how has learning loss, deepened inequality and other gaps in knowledge impacted overall student achievement in 2023? A common way to compare and contrast child achievement is to use testing scores to see where students stand in their state and federally, which demonstrates that student achievement has taken a hit as well.
2022 brought additional testing scores from K-12 learners that were compared against 2019 averages. We can take a look at the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP, or The Nation’s Report Card. The results found that nationally, “the average math score for fourth graders fell 5 points since 2019, while the score for eighth graders dropped 8 points. In reading, average scores for both grades fell by 3 points.” This is the largest decline in mathematics that we have observed in the history of the NAEP.
Consistent with test results varying by state, NAEP findings showed that some students only had a single point in learning. On the other hand, some school districts saw double-digit declines. Pandemic learning loss impacted 17 states the most with some students over half a year behind on average. Mckinsey reports that the worst schools may have found their students an entire year behind in 2022.
To drive home the impact that the pandemic has had on testing scores nationwide, we can look at what the scores were projected to be if there was no disruption due to COVID-19. Mckinsey’s data analysis found that the pandemic erased more than 20 years of progress on NAEP assessments. It reported that “fourth-grade students will not catch up to 2019 math levels until 2036, and reading levels until 2044, while eighth graders won’t recover 2019 math levels until 2050.”
In order to combat learning loss and falling test scores, schools are focusing on learning recovery. This happens not only inside the classroom but outside as well in afterschool programs, tutors and summer study programs. But this takes additional funds, which not all schools have. McKinsey reports that another challenge is that the modern school system can’t “easily provide 12 or more additional weeks of learning during the year.” This makes it necessary for some districts to look into more cost-effective strategies that will help students regain lost ground.
Some experts suggest that tutoring is the best way to make learning recovery happen for all age groups. This kind of personalized learning is one of the most effective ways to increase student achievement scores. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Florence found that elementary students saw improvement in their comprehension of both math and reading when a tutor was introduced.
However, there are challenges when it comes to equality in tutoring accessibility. The University of Chicago Education Lab released a study in 2021 that found that an intense tutoring program costs about $3,800 per student over a school year. In addition, there are also some serious challenges when it comes to finding high-quality tutoring staff. Again, more privileged areas and school districts might have access to tutors where low-income students don’t, leaving them further behind.
The Future of Learning
Whether the goal is college readiness or to prepare students for the workforce, the future of America depends on successful students. If students are interested in going into higher education, they need to be prepared to compete with learners from other school districts that may be more competitive. Bruce Vandal, a higher education completion consultant, reports that colleges are preparing for incoming students that are behind. He suggests that a solution could come from thinking about the “best way to deliver corequisite classes: Should they be taught by the same instructor who teaches the main course or a different one? And on alternating days, or back to back?”
A similar struggle can be seen for those that are entering the workforce from their education journey. If the workforce expects these new graduates to be at the same level as previous graduates, there will be a widening knowledge gap when it comes to educated employees and workers. This could lead to future lost wages and a struggling economy. The availability of knowledgeable and qualified workers who can fill important roles in society may wane.
However, governments and private institutions are working hard to close the gap and prevent further learning loss. This doesn’t happen without external support from companies like Agile Education which have valuable data and tools to strive for a better future.
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