6 ways to help students bounce back after a tough academic year

More evidence shows that historically underserved students were disproportionately impacted
By: | July 28, 2021
Students finished the year with lower levels of achievement compared to a typical year, with larger declines in math than in reading, new research shows.Students finished the year with lower levels of achievement compared to a typical year, with larger declines in math than in reading, new research shows.

Most students made lower-than-typical learning gains in math and reading in 2020-21, according to new research into the depth of COVID-era learning loss.

NWEA Map Growth assessment scores from 5.5 million U.S. public school students in grades 3-8 found:

  • On average, students across most grades and subject areas made learning gains in 2020-21, but at a lower rate compared to pre-pandemic trends.
  • Students finished the year with lower levels of achievement compared to a typical year, with larger declines in math (8 to 12 percentile points) than in reading (3 to 6 percentile points).
  • Achievement was lower for all student groups in 2020-21 but historically underserved students (e.g., American Indian and Alaskan Native, Black, and Latino and/or students in high poverty schools) were disproportionately impacted, particularly in the elementary grades.

These findings call for a new model of education that “ground the principles of innovation, creativity, and equity in every fabric of our schools,” Michael Conner, superintendent of Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut, said of the study.

“At this juncture, we have permission to be bold, creative, innovative, and experimentative for acceleration and recovery,” Conner says. “There has not been a time in our industry where we can reimagine the traditional industrial model that historically marginalized students.”

To reverse the trends, NWEA researchers urge district leaders and communities to dig into their own data when developing solutions. Along with understanding the academic indicators, educators should analyze attendance rates, social-emotional well-being, family involvement, local unemployment and eviction rates, and other factors.

“It’s important to remember that academic achievement is only one dimension of students’ education and these data alone cannot paint a complete picture of how young people fared this past year,” said Karyn Lewis, senior research scientist at NWEA and lead author of the study. “For instance, our results cannot speak to the many ways students, families, and teachers have shown incredible resilience and adaptability in the face of immense challenges that completely upended normal life.”

Here are NWEA’s policy recommendations for helping students bounce back:

  1. Re-engage all learners, with a focus on historically underserved students: Expand instructional time, offer high-dosage tutoring and ensure access to grade-level curriculum.
  2. Continue to support access to remote learning technology for students and families: Provide students with high-speed internet at school and at home, train families on digital literacy and evaluate the efficacy of remote instruction.
  3. Attend to physical, social, and mental health needs of students and families: Make school meals available to all students, partner with community organizations to connect with underserved communities and make mental health services available in schools.
  4. Measure student progress, rethink assessment systems, and use data to support recovery: Use district- and school-level data continuously to measure academic recovery; give students, teachers, and school and district leaders timely and actionable information; and publicly report de-identified aggregate data on student progress.
  5. Support and train teachers and leaders: Build a strong teacher pipeline through targeted recruitment, preparation, and retention programs; build skills through leadership development and instructional coaching, and support educators’ mental and physical health.
  6. Shift from restarting to reimagining accountability and school improvement: Align system indicators to state-specific COVID impacts and state recovery plans; explore how to provide additional insight on how student groups have been impacted, and evaluate the relevance of current accountability indicators in moving toward more equitable and innovative state accountability systems.

“Our purpose in sharing this research was not to tell teachers how challenging this last year was—they understand better than anyone what it was like for students and what they need to do when they enter those classrooms this fall,” said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA.

“Our call for radical collaboration is directed at those who work in support of educators,” Minnich said. “We must remove any barriers in the way of effective instruction, apply resources where teachers need them the most (and that means truly listening to what they need) and ensure there is support beyond this next year because that unprecedented federal funding will run out long before we’ve reached that education transformation.”