Three school years into COVID, are students gaining ground or still sliding?

Student performance in year two of the pandemic has been even lower than it was during the first year.
By: | March 28, 2022

Though many schools have resumed in-person instruction during most of 2021-22, one set of widely used assessments shows students are still falling behind. Put simply, student performance in year two of the pandemic has been lower than during the first year, according to “How Kids Are Performing,” the latest report from testing company Renaissance.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade scored lower on Renaissance’s math and English Star Assessments in 2021-22 compared to 2020-2021. While fall-to-winter growth was stronger this year than it was during the 2020-2021 school year, it remained below typical in most grades, the company announced.

“For me, the growth score has the most meaning,” said Superintendent Theresa Axford of Florida’s Monroe County School District, which has been monitoring student progress consistently pre- and post-COVID. “What we are seeing is that our teachers are being effective and supporting the kids in the exact ways they need to be supported, and that is reflected in the student growth data.”

The results represent 4.4 million literacy and 2.9 million math tests from nearly 20,000 schools. The Star interim assessments are generally given multiple times throughout the school year for screening, benchmarking and progress monitoring, and to guide instruction.

Performance and growth rates varied between student subgroups yet most followed the overall pattern of lower performance and slightly stronger growth. Still, a deeper dive into the results may be more illuminating for district leaders and their teams: For example, 4th- and 5th-graders—who are among the students impacted most negatively by COVID’s disruptions—showed slight winter-to-winter improvements in math. On the other hand, middle- and high-school students’ math scores are the farthest behind, leading the company to conclude that learning loss has compounded over the multiple years of the pandemic.

First-graders also showed much lower growth rates this school year. This may have been caused by not being able to attend kindergarten in person for some or all of 20202-1. Also, many teachers in the early grades have reported spending more time supporting students’ social-emotional needs, sometimes at the expense of academic instruction. Disparities may also be caused by the fact that last year’s tests were given both in-person and remotely, while most of this year’s tests took place at school.

Overall, reading scores were 9 points lower this fall and 3 points lower this winter (compared to 2020-21) while math scores were 8 points lower this fall and 3 points lower in winter. Despite the signs of progress, overall growth lagged behind what the company considers necessary for widespread recovery.

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The report offers the following recommendations for district leaders and their teams:

  • Screen and closely monitor the progress of early learners. Two years of disruptions have been particularly hard on the youngest learners, particularly pre-readers. Educators should use formative assessments and progress-monitoring tools to determine when and how they need to intervene.
  • Provide professional development for accelerated learning approaches. Accelerated learning differs substantially from traditional remediation, meaning that many teachers likely need more training to implement new strategies.
  • Identify the most critical grade-level skills. Educators should prioritize instruction on the math and reading skills that are most essential for progress and, as those benchmarks are reached, determine which resources can best accelerate learning.
  • Make use of all options for academic time. Schools have less time to help some students—high school sophomores and juniors, for example—catch up before they leave K-12. The leading interventions—extended school days, tutoring and summer learning—all qualify for ESSER funding.

“All signs suggest that this is going to be a multiyear recovery,” said Gene Kerns, vice president and chief academic officer at Renaissance. “We can reset instruction back to where it was pre-pandemic, but that isn’t going to instantly move students up to where they would have been had the pandemic not occurred. We know what to do—and educators are rising to meet this great challenge—but it’s going to take time.”