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7 takeaways from the latest data

American students are slowly regaining academic ground lost during the pandemic, according to nationwide and state testing data compiled by ChalkBeat.

In the past year, students in younger grades have regained between 15% and 35% of the learning they lost, according to data released Tuesday by the experimental group NWEA.

That’s good news, especially after a tumultuous school year that featured frequent staffing shortages, behavioral challenges and student absenteeism.

The bad news is that students — especially low-income, black and Hispanic students — are far behind where they would have been had it not been for the pandemic. Recovery has been anemic or nonexistent in middle schools, NWEA found.

“At least the bleeding seems to have stopped, and we’re seeing some evidence that we’re closing those gaps ever so slightly,” said Caryn Lewis, an NWEA researcher. But at this pace, he said, it will take years for students to fully recover. “That timeline is pretty alarming.”

In addition to the latest NWEA results, ChuckBeat reviewed a range of academic data released by states and testing agencies this spring and summer. Here’s what it tells us about how American students are doing.

1. Schools and students are beginning to dig out of the hole of learning loss — but they still have a long way to go.

In the first two years of the pandemic-affected school, students made slower-than-normal progress on math and reading tests. The gap between where students are and where they would be if not for the pandemic is often referred to as “learning loss.”

Last spring, NWEA found that the average student dropped 3 to 6 percent in reading and 8 to 12 points in math, depending on the grade. Now, NWEA is back with updated results using data from more than 8 million students.

In math, students in younger grades made slightly more progress last school year than in a typical pre-pandemic year. In reading, students made ground last summer and then made normal progress during the school year.

Overall, last year’s younger students made up about a quarter of their lost learning. For example, students who were in second grade when the pandemic first hit in 2020 fell 10 percent behind in math by the spring of third grade. This spring, when they were finishing fourth grade, the gap had narrowed to 7 points.

Results were similar in a separate test, i-Ready, in preliminary results shared with Chalkbit. For example, in second-grade math, 52% of students were on grade level at the end of last year, up from 49% the year before but well below the pre-pandemic benchmark of 61%.

Another analysis by the company Amplify found that 48% of first graders were on track to read early in the middle of last school year. That’s up from 44% the year before, but still down from 58% before the pandemic.

Recently released state test results from Florida, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas also generally showed partial academic bounceback in 2022.

“We see some good news here in terms of improvement,” said Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates, the developer of i-Ready. “But overall students are still lagging behind pre-pandemic performance.”

2. Older students may recover more slowly.

On the NWEA test, seventh and eighth graders recovered almost none of the learning they had lost. In fact, eighth graders fell further behind in math this year.

Other test results varied, with some showing more progress for older students.

If older students are struggling to catch up, this is especially worrisome, since they have less time left in school.

“That should be the focus of the conversation: What are we going to do for kids who are in eighth grade or high school and they basically seem to be spinning their wheels?” said Ohio State University education researcher Vladimir Kogan.

3. The gap between race and poverty levels is still worse than before the pandemic.

Test score gaps by student race and family income were already large before the pandemic. By 2021, they will be even bigger.

Recent data from NWEA shows that in reading, high-poverty schools made faster progress than low-poverty schools last school year, narrowing the gap ever so slightly. In mathematics, however, progress was comparable in both types of schools, meaning that the gap did not narrow larger than usual.

“We still see this really significant and surprising gap overall,” Lewis said.

4. Learning loss recovery efforts may stop, although it is impossible to say exactly what is working.

Schools across the country are adding support to help students catch up. For example, Woodland Hills, a high-poverty district outside Pittsburgh, expanded summer and after-school programming and purchased a new online curriculum. Elementary schools also added time for students to work in small groups on skills where they still excel. Mathematics class time has doubled in secondary schools.

“We’re seeing scholars start to catch up,” said Eddie Wilson, the district’s assistant superintendent. “It’s very nascent.”

Still, students are far behind where they would normally be. “We need to move faster than we can now,” Wilson said.

Many school districts still have COVID relief funds to use to restore learning. This means that there is still time to add and expand aid, even though funding will dry up in a few years.

“Whether it creates a generation of kids who never catch up or whether most of them do depends on what we do in the future,” said Paul Hill, who reviews evidence on learning losses for the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

One obstacle is that evidence that recovery efforts have proven successful is limited. This makes it difficult to determine which programs to expand and which to scrap.

“It’s been a really challenging year,” Lewis said. “The improvement we’re seeing suggests to me that we’re doing something right to help kids catch up. I can’t say what it is.”

5. Remote schooling likely has lasting effects.

The latest study does not differentiate between students who have attended school virtually for longer and those who have attended school in person since the fall of 2020.

Because the gaps have been so large and the academic returns to date have been so modest, there’s a good chance those students are still falling behind.

Woodland Hills personally did not return for any guidance as of late March 2021. Wilson said that although he supported the approach at the time, the district and its students are still grappling with its consequences.

“Now we know we have to remediate 3,000 students because we have made the health of our students our priority,” he said. “If I had to go back and do it all over again, I’d come back from virtual instruction much earlier than we did.”

6. This test score probably matters.

Research shows that test scores predict — not perfectly, but with some accuracy — whether students will finish high school, succeed in college and earn a good living. At a national level, they predict economic growth. Studies of earlier school interruptions show that test scores decline, and then high school and college completion.

All that can be said is that learning loss, if it continues, can be a serious problem for both individual students and the country as a whole.

7. The data we have is incomplete, though we will get better information soon

The NWEA data only includes schools that choose to test, and those schools may not be fully representative of other locations. Many states have not released their own test results, including large ones like California and New York, where many students have been virtual for much of the 2020-21 school year.

But we will get better data soon. In the middle of the last school year, the federal government administered the test to a national sample of fourth- and eighth-graders. These results will be published in the fall.

Matt Barnum is a national reporter who covers education policy, politics and research. Contact him [email protected]

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site that covers educational change in public schools.

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