How wide will classroom skills gaps get by fall 2020?

NWEA study looks at the content students have mastered by the beginning of 5th grade
By: | May 27, 2020
School closures could widen the range of skills mastered by students in a typical fifth-grade classroom.School closures could widen the range of skills mastered by students in a typical fifth-grade classroom.

An average fifth-grade classroom at the beginning of a school year includes students who have mastered eighth-grade content or higher, and others who have just reached a third-grade level.

Researchers are now concerned that school closures and the challenges of online learning could widen this skills gap and require new solutions from teachers in the fall, according to a new report from NWEA, the nonprofit assessment company.

This report follows a now hallmark NWEA study on the “COVID-slide,” which researchers estimated could be more severe than the typical summer slide. They found that students may return in the fall with only 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and less than 50% in math.

That latter figure would put students nearly a full year behind, according to that study, which was released in April.


More from DAHow Miami-Dade aims to tackle the ‘COVID slide’


“We can only speculate about what fall 2020 will look like,” researchers write in the new report, which was released on Wednesday. “Under the best-case scenario the range of instructional levels would remain the same, but the range in fall 2020 may do some combination of widening with the bulk of students still sitting near the middle, possibly only shifting, or even increasing with more students in the extreme instructional levels.”

The new report, which combines research from NWEA, Texas A&M University, John Hopkins University, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Duke University, offers some solutions and suggestions for recovering lost learning.

  • Extended school days, along with holding some classes on weekends and during traditional breaks.
  • Using diagnostic data to accurately tailor instruction to the needs of individual students.
  • Conducting an assessment at the beginning of the school year to determine each students’ status.
  • Setting reasonable learning and social-emotional goals, and celebrating the small wins.
  • Placing students in diverse groups based on skill level rather than age or grade.

“Teachers will need to look at innovative ways to efficiently and with laser focus determine how to tailor instruction to meet the varying academic and social and emotional needs of each student,” Jacob Bruno, NWEA’s vice president of professional learning, said in a statement.

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