Students are showing growth during a K-12 recovery that could take years

Academic gains this past school year matched pre-pandemic rates and accelerated compared to 2020-2021.

Here’s the good news: Academic recovery is underway for many students. Now the bad news: At the current rate of growth, full recovery will not be reached until after federal COVID relief funds expire and may not close achievement gaps.

Those are the hopes and concerns emerging from a comparison of pandemic-era NWEA test results to students’ scores in the years leading up to COVID. The upshot of this new research–which analyzed more than 8 million math and reading exams–is that educators must continue to prioritize academic recovery and make equity a key part of their plans, said Karyn Lewis, director of the NWEA’s Center for School and Student Progress.

NWEA’s reports on its own test results have been highly influential on K-12 leaders and policymakers shaping initiatives to tackle learning loss. “These signs of rebounding are especially heartening during another challenging school year of more variants, staff shortages, and a host of uncertainties,” said Lewis, who co-authored the analysis. “Any signs of hope are reasons to celebrate and we must take that moment to do so, and then push forward with renewed energy and a sense of urgency because we’re just at the initial steps of addressing the tremendous impact of this pandemic on our students.”

Academic gains from fall 2021 to spring 2022 matched pre-pandemic trends, with the biggest rebounds seen in math and among younger students. Growth, which accelerated compared to 2o2o-21, also climbed back to pre-COVID rates across school-poverty levels though more affluent students had less ground to make up and should recover more quickly, NWEA says.

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But student achievement remains behind what it would have been had the pandemic not occurred. And a recovery that continues at current growth rates will take years, and outlast ESSER funds without closing achievement gaps, the company warned. “We must temper our celebration as significant gaps between current and historic achievement levels still exist, and especially so for students of color and students attending high-poverty schools,” the authors wrote. “If achievement gains remain parallel with pre-pandemic trends in the coming school year, these gaps will also persist.”

The unequal impacts seen between districts and even between schools within the same district mean that education leaders must tailor their initiatives to meet the needs of all students, the company says. NWEA says it has been helping administrators through this process by teaming up with policymakers and the civil rights community to shape and support pandemic recovery plans, said Lindsay Dworkin, senior vice president of policy and communication.

“Beyond investing in research-based interventions that are targeted at students most impacted by the pandemic, education leaders will need the resources, support, and flexibility necessary to expand instructional time for students as well as provide more professional learning opportunities to their teachers,” Dworkin said.

Ultimately, administrators, teachers and policymakers must better define “academic recovery” because returning to pre-pandemic norms will not solve the inequities that plagued education prior to COVID, the authors said. “A one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic recovery means that some students will have their needs met while others will continue to be left behind, effectively perpetuating disparities for historically underserved groups,” they wrote. “Truly achieving recovery requires above-average growth–and for some students, that growth will have to be well above average.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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