Remote learning was not the biggest factor in how far some students fell behind in reading and math during the last two pandemic years, new research revealed this week.
Where students stood academically prior to COVID had the greater impact on the gaps that emerged during the pandemic, regardless of whether students learned virtually or in-person, according to an analysis by the education company, Curriculum Associates.
It’s yet another sign that the ordeals of the last two years did not affect all students equally. “There clearly were differences in terms of kids who were in school vs. remote but not as big as expected, on average,” says Matt Dawson, an author of the study. “Those differences got bigger once we incorporated starting placements. Kids who were already behind had the biggest differences, and for math, the differences were bigger than in reading.”
Researchers based their findings on comparisons of student growth pre- and post-COVID. In signs of a vicious cycle, the farther below grade level students were before schools shut down in March 2020, the farther they likely fell behind as the disruptions continued. “When you factor in the historical gaps for kids in higher-poverty, lower-percentage-white and urban communities a lot of the gaps were maintained if not made worse during the pandemic,” Dawson says.
The research should therefore serve as a guide to superintendents, principals and their teams as they plan academic recovery and intervention for this and the coming school years. Also, educators shouldn’t settle for averages that can hide the true extent of how far behind some students are, he says.
Use of student data will be key in zeroing in on the specific skills students are lacking or struggling with as schools help them bounce back. “The kids who were already struggling before, that’s where you want to put your resources,” he says. “Even getting them back to normal, to the same growth trajectory, isn’t going to be enough. There are a lot more kids in the two-or-more-grades-behind category and we have to figure out how to accelerate their learning.”
Also during the pandemic, more K-2 students are being identified as at high risk for reading difficulties, research from the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development has found. The number of Virginia students in this age range that scored below literacy benchmarks rose from 21% in 2019 to 35% in 2021, the highest rate ever recorded.
Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, English learners, and those with disabilities score below benchmark at disproportionately higher rates. The gaps between kindergarten and second grade were also disproportionately higher for Black children, the research found.
“Reading difficulties typically persist for students who do not develop adequate reading skills within the first three years of schooling,” the report warns. “In turn, reading deficits often compound to negatively affect other areas of academic learning, engagement, and success.”
One key way to ensure academic recovery from COVID is equitable is to expand the reach of the community school models. These buildings, which provide a range of services in acting as a family and community hub, could better ensure support is provided to the students who need it most, according to a 2021 report by the Brookings Institute’s Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools.
Beyond academics and social-emotional learning, community schools also provide medical and dental care, career preparedness, and adult education. The think tank, therefore, urges school leaders to lobby for new state and federal legislation that would provide new funding to create community schools at scale in high-needs communities, evaluate their impact, and determine best practices.
“Community schools would integrate, rather than silo, the services that children and families need, thus ensuring that funding for health, mental health, expanded learning time, and social services is well spent and effective,” the report says.