How far behind did students fall during spring closures?

Police shootings and civil unrest this summer likely also contributed to learning loss
By: | October 29, 2020
In reading, students began the year with 63% to 68% of the typical learning gains, according to a new research brief from the nonprofit testing company NWEA. (GettyImages/Ridofranz)In reading, students began the year with 63% to 68% of the typical learning gains, according to a new research brief from the nonprofit testing company NWEA. (GettyImages/Ridofranz)

Learning losses during remote instruction this spring were more severe in math than in reading, a new analysis has found.

Using a model that treated spring school closures like an extended summer break, NWEA researchers found that students likely started school this fall with 37% to 50% of the typical annual learning gains in math.

In reading, students began the year with 63% to 68% of the typical learning gains, according to a new research brief from the nonprofit testing company.

However, losses were not universal—the top third of students appear to have made gains in reading while schools were shut down.


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“Inequalities that have existed in our education system prior to COVID are getting worse at the same time school districts are facing massive budget shortages,” said study co-author Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at NWEA.

“It will be important to identify students who are struggling and fallen behind academically and provide those students with extra supports, such as high dosage tutoring and additional instructional time,” Kuhfeld added.

Online learning and remote instruction may have mitigated learning loss, compared to a typical summer. However, the researchers found, the quality and availability of remote instruction and online learning varied across school districts.

The study cites various other research that found the following about remote instruction:

  • Only one in five school districts met their standard for “rigorous” remote learning.
  • Teachers estimated students spent half as much time on learning as they did before the COVID-19 closures.
  • Nearly 50% of low-income families and 42% of families of color lacked sufficient devices at home to access distance learning.
  • Most studies found that students attending virtual charter schools performed below students in traditional public schools.

Also, the summer learning loss may not be as comparable because of the more severe impacts of the COVID economic crisis and civil unrest sparked by police shootings.

An Education Trust poll of parents in California and New York found elevated stress levels for families due to job loss, fears of catching a life-threatening virus, social isolation and disruptions to everyday life.


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Job and wage losses also put families at risk of food and housing insecurity.

Research has also found that the police shooting of Michael Brown significantly hindered math and reading achievement of elementary schools in the Ferguson area.

Other studies have shown the impacts can be long-lasting and greatest for Black and Hispanic students, including lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates.


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DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.