By Sarah Mervosh, The New York Times
Behind the declines:
Months into the current school year, most American students are still trying to make up for what they lost during the pandemic. This fall, we saw some of the clearest evidence yet of the extent to which the pandemic — and the school closures that came with it — hurt children’s education.
Nine-year-olds lost the equivalent of two decades of progress in math and reading, according to an authoritative national test. Fourth and eighth graders also recorded sweeping declines, particularly in math, with eighth-grade scores falling in 49 of 50 states.
The data comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous exam that evaluates thousands of children across the country and is overseen by a research arm of the U.S. Education Department.
Today, I’ll break down the factors that drove these declines and explain an important trend that helps show why these results are so sobering.
Remote learning’s role
First, to address one of the most common questions I hear as an education reporter: To what degree is remote learning responsible for these setbacks? The answer is both simple and complicated.
At a basic level, there is good evidence and a growing consensus that extended remote learning harmed students. Some state test results from 2021 help show the damage. In Ohio, researchers found that districts that stayed fully remote during the 2020-21 school year experienced declines up to three times greater than those of districts that mostly taught students in person.
More recently, the national test results capture both the initial academic declines and any recovery, and they offer some nuance. While there was a notable correlation between remote learning and declines in fourth-grade math, for example, there was little to no correlation in reading. Why the discrepancy? One explanation is that reading skills tend to be more influenced by parents and what happens at home, whereas math is more directly affected by what is taught in school.
So remote learning does not explain the whole story. What else does? In a sophisticated analysis of thousands of public school districts in 29 states, researchers at Harvard and Stanford Universities found that poverty played an even bigger role in academic declines during the pandemic.
“The poverty rate is very predictive of how much you lost,” Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford who helped lead the analysis, told me.
Comparing two California school districts, one wealthier and the other poorer, illustrates this point. Cupertino Union, a Silicon Valley school district where about 6 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch (a marker that researchers use to estimate poverty), spent nearly half of the 2020-21 school year remote. So did Merced City in the Central Valley, where nearly 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to the Harvard-Stanford analysis.
Yet despite spending roughly the same amount of time attending classes remotely, students in the wealthier Cupertino district actually gained ground in math, while students in poorer Merced City fell behind.
High vs. low performers
While the overall declines in student achievement were stark, the averages mask even deeper divergences between student groups. For example, Black and Hispanic students, who had started out behind white and Asian students in fourth-grade math, lost more ground than those groups during the pandemic.
Notably, the gap is also growing between the country’s highest-achieving students and low-performing students who struggle the most.
That gap — driven by declines among lower performers — was most clear for younger students and in reading. (Middle-school math declines were more significant across the board.)
In fourth grade, the average reading score on the national exam fell three points. But results for students in the top 90th percentile did not fall at all, while those for students in the bottom 10th percentile plunged six points, double the overall average.
In other words: The students who had the least ground to lose lost the most.
There may be a twofold explanation. Recent research from NWEA, a nonprofit academic assessment organization, found that students at the bottom of their classes both experienced sharper setbacks at the start of the pandemic and showed less improvement last school year.
I am sometimes asked: If the pandemic affected all students, how much does it matter? Isn’t everyone behind?
What the latest data affirmed is that while the pandemic affected all students, it did not affect all students equally. That was true with remote learning, and it is playing out now in recovery. The students who had the greatest needs coming into the pandemic have the steepest challenge — and will need the most help — in the future.