5 states, areas where ‘Covid Slide’ has hit students hardest

Huge learning gaps exist in some school districts and may take years to overcome, Stanford University researchers say
By: | October 2, 2020
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The Summer Slide typically reverses some of the learning gains students made during the previous academic year. The effects can be profound, especially for those in low-income areas, where a lack of access to educational resources and materials exists. Those gaps often become more apparent as the fall term opens.

This year has been a test unlike any other for schools because of when and why those losses occurred – during the spring at the start of a pandemic.

Dubbed the “COVID-19 Slide”, the shutdown of schools in March combined with a locked-down summer period stunted much of the academic progress made by students and their teachers. Even those that forged on in virtual learning models lost precious face-to-face instruction time and fell further behind than in previous years.

According to a new study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, students in the 19 states and regions it observed suffered big losses in learning during this pivotal period. Its researchers noted recovering from those deficits “could take years.”

How significant were the setbacks? Through its work with the Northwest Evaluation Association and taking into account previous Summer Slide numbers, Stanford estimates that students lost as much as a half of year of learning in reading and likely more than that in math. Making up those gaps presents enormous challenges for districts and their educators, many of whom still have not returned to in-person instruction.

“It will take extended broad-based support from all corners to address the current deficits and the ripples they cause into the future,” said Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO at Stanford University.

Which states were hardest hit

Using statistics from the NWEA and its own methodology to calculate pandemic-related learning losses, Stanford looked at a cohort of 16 states, plus the District of Columbia as well as New York, which was broken down into the disparate upstate and New York City regions for a total of 19.

Every one of those states or regions sustained mean learning losses in both areas of reading and math, and some more substantial than others. There were some schools in specific states such as Missouri and New Jersey on the reading side that beat the odds to show positive gains, but Stanford researchers were quick to point out that those were extremely rare cases.

In fact, there were some schools in states that went far beyond the mean average of learning loss. For example, one of the largest gaps occurred in South Carolina, where a staggering 557 days were lost in math. In Tennessee, the largest gap in reading was said to be more than a year, at 426 days.

A dive inside the research shows the severity of the losses in the hardest-hit states and areas:

New York: The numbers across the state were not encouraging, both in the upstate area and within the City. The pandemic hit New York hard, forcing massive long-term shutdowns that likely affected the overall study outcomes. Upstate students lost 224 days of math learning, while City students fell behind by 212. Though reading gaps across the board were lower than math gaps in all states, even New York posted huge learning losses (105 days for upstate students and 125 for those in the City.)

South Carolina: According to the Stanford CREDO figures, students in the Palmetto State lost 183 learning days of reading, the most of any area represented within the study, and 227 days in math.

Illinois: The hardest hit state on Stanford’s math spectrum, students lost 233 days this year. On the reading side, they fell behind by 126 days.

Indiana: Both math and reading gaps in the Hoosier State were among the highest of those observed by Stanford’s researchers – 209 in math and 129 in reading.

District of Columbia: The numbers for D.C. students and educators also showed huge setbacks for students – 126 days of reading loss and 218 in math.


Some of the states that scored better than others but still showed disparities in learning on the reading scale included: North Carolina, Arkansas and New Jersey. On the math side, Wisconsin rated best overall, though again students still lost 136 days. It is worth noting the incredible disparity even within schools from each state. For example, the largest gap for students in math in Michigan was 448 days lost, while smallest was 89. That projects to almost a full year’s difference of potential learning loss from one school to another.

Recommendations for schools

Across the board, the numbers present fairly bleak short-term outcomes for students. Stanford researchers note the pandemic’s impact on learning could stretch beyond even the 2020-21 academic year if additional losses occur. They point to the impact that school closures had and a lack of in-person instruction could have.

Despite those negative numbers and within the framework of the study, they offered a bit of guidance for school leaders moving forward.

They suggest getting away from “a one-to-many, fixed pace approach” and instead recommended schools consider new approaches of instruction that not only reach all students but help foster creative learning. They pressed the need for “strong diagnostic assessments and frequent progress checks.”  And they cautioned schools where learning losses are greatest to avoid a deep reliance or input from the communities that serve them because they often don’t have the resources to support them.

“For us, the bigger concern is the variation in loss estimates across schools,” Raymond said. “The students who would have been at the back of the pack if regular assessments had been used are the students that have the deepest rates of COVID Slide.”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com

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