COVID learning loss remains unequal despite signs K-12 is bouncing back

Students made gains during the 2020-21 school year at a lower rate compared to pre-pandemic trends.
By: | December 21, 2021
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Amid some positive signs that schools are getting back on track from disruptions earlier in the pandemic, there is yet more evidence of disproportionate learning loss and educator burnout.

A new analysis shows that almost all districts returned to in-person instruction in the 2021-22 school year and that the school day looks much like it did pre-COVID. But a set of fall 2021 assessments show that historically marginalized students and students in high-poverty schools continue to suffer the deepest learning loss. Results from NWEA MAP Growth assessments taken this fall by six million public school students in grades 3-8 showed:

  • Students made gains during the 2020-21 school year at a lower rate compared to pre-pandemic trends, especially between winter and spring.
  • Student achievement at the start of the 2021-22 school year was lower compared to a typical year, with larger relative declines in math (9 to 11 percentile points) than reading (3 to 7 percentile points).
  • Achievement was lower for all student groups in fall 2021; historically marginalized students and students in high-poverty schools were disproportionately impacted, particularly in the elementary grades.
  • Student gains across the pandemic (from fall 2019 to fall 2021) lagged norms for pre-pandemic growth, especially in math.
  • Higher achievers made gains that were more consistent with projected normative growth, whereas lower-achieving students were more likely to fall short of growth projections.

“Put simply, the students who could least afford to lose ground relative to other students are those who were the most impacted, and especially so in math,” NWEA’s research brief said.

However, gaps between current achievement and pre-pandemic achievement have not increased, a sign that may indicate the impacts of the pandemic are stabilizing, NWEA researchers say.

“This latest research highlights that while students are back in classrooms it does not mean that all is back to pre-pandemic “normal” even though there are early signs of some stabilization. said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA. “It is critical—now more than ever—that we direct funding where it is needed most and determine the necessary interventions to improve student outcomes, particularly for those who have suffered the greatest disruptions.”

Are we actually innovating online?

This fall, 96% of public schools were offering in-person instruction in October compared to just more than a third in the spring, when 33% of schools remained fully remote, according to the analysis by the Christensen Institute think tank. And nearly all students are spending at least five hours in school a day, five days a week.

Also, among the 345 districts surveyed this October, more than 70% of instruction was single-paced (rather than differentiated) and took place synchronously.

Of course, challenges persist. The analysis also found:

  • 80% of educators said students were “behind” or “slightly behind.”
  • More than half said their workloads weren’t sustainable while 80% reported suffering substantial work-related stress.
  • Teachers’ top 3 challenges this fall were student absenteeism, supporting students’ increased social-emotional challenges and holding students accountable for completing schoolwork. These challenges were greater for middle and high school teachers.

As for ESSER funds, the top spending priorities have been health-related equipment and measures and Infrastructure and instructional resources for remote instruction. Meanwhile, many schools are offering new programs, such as tutoring services, a full-time virtual school option and supplemental online courses.

However, the analysis also questioned whether many schools were innovating in the area of virtual instruction and concluded that most teachers were using online learning to enhance conventional instruction rather than enable new models of teaching. For instance: A large majority of teachers said they used online resources to manage assignments and administer quizzes but just a minority reported individualizing instruction, supporting students socially and emotionally, or facilitating mastery-based learning.