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This School Year, Recovery from COVID Learning Loss Went the Wrong Direction


July 13, 2023

Beleaguered with one report after another about how bad COVID learning loss has been, many Americans think they have a pretty clear picture of the basics of where student learning has been and where it is headed. We know student learning took a huge hit during the pandemic, leaving most students well behind compared to their pre-pandemic peers. Most of us also assume that teachers and students are at least digging their way out of COVID learning loss, no doubt buoyed by the hundreds of billions in federal pandemic aid for public schools. Even if progress is slower than we would like, catching up is a long game and patience is warranted. Right? Unfortunately, no. New data from the last school year suggest that over the past year academic recovery is worse than slow: It’s running in the wrong direction.

Earlier this week, NWEA, a student assessment organization released a new report showing that students progressed more slowly in reading and math during the 2022–23 school year than in pre-pandemic years. In other words, during the past school year, most students fell further behind.

The NWEA report compared fall-to-spring achievement gains for 6.7 million students in grades 3–8 during the 2022–3 school year to fall-to-spring achievement gains for students in grades 3–8 during the 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19 school years, and found that students in grades 4–8 are learning less. The losses were most pronounced in grades 5–8, where students progressed about 15 percent more slowly in reading than their pre-pandemic peers and about 10 percent more slowly in math. This year’s progress was also slower than the progress in 2021–22. Since students fell so far behind during the pandemic, they would need to progress more quickly to catch up. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening.

These differences in learning progress are not small. NWEA estimates that 8th grade students would need 7.4 months of additional schooling to catch up in reading and 9.1 months of additional schooling to catch up in math. These data make clear that popular plans for a few extra days of supplementary learning will not suffice. Students don’t need a few extra days. They need many extra months.

It is not clear why students are continuing to lose ground or what needs to be shored up to see progress. One possibility is that the rhythms of schooling that were disrupted by the pandemic have not yet been restored. For instance, the pandemic may have lowered teacher and parent expectations or had long-lasting effects on student behavior.

Another, more disturbing possibility is that what we view as “pandemic learning loss” was not just the result of the pandemic. Indeed, recently released NAEP scores for 13-year-olds on Long Term Trend Assessments show that the performance of 13-year-olds in reading and math was already declining before the pandemic—and declining precipitously for lower-achieving students. Similar patterns are evident for 9-year-olds on the Long Term Trend, and for students in grades 4 and 8 on the main NAEP test. Together, these numbers raise the question of whether recent test score declines are just a continuation of pre-pandemic trends. If so, even returning to normal pre-pandemic progress wouldn’t be enough to prevent further learning loss, and, as the NWEA data show, students were not even reaching that normal pace this year, much less exceeding it.

Whatever the case, and whoever is responsible—whether districts, superintendents, teachers, parents, students or all of the above—what is being done to combat pandemic learning loss is clearly not enough. Not close to enough. Even more worrisome, the unprecedented federal pandemic recovery funds that are meant to help students dig out of a deep hole will run dry in a little over a year. This latest evidence from NWEA suggests that for the vast majority of students that hole is actually deepening.