How Far Behind Did Students Fall After COVID-19 Closures? A New Study Delivers Mixed Answers

Image for article titled How Far Behind Did Students Fall After COVID-19 Closures? A New Study Delivers Mixed Answers
Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

How much did nationwide school closures impact students’ academic progress this past spring? A new study hints at answers—but what may be most telling is what we do not see.


New data from the Northwest Evaluation Association analyzed the results of tests taken by nearly 4.4 million students in grades three through eight. The good news, the education blog Chalkbeat notes, is that the results weren’t as bad as some projections earlier this year. When it came to reading, in particular, students scored at the same levels they had in non-pandemic years.

The same wasn’t true for math scores, which dipped an average of 5 to 10 percentile points from the year before. Still, most parents and educators could be satisfied with that, given the context of a global pandemic and months of (ongoing) economic hardship that has followed. When schools first began closing in the spring, the NWEA predicted that students would lose “half of a year’s progress in math (10 to 20 percentile points) and 30% of a year in reading (6 to 8 points) by the fall,” Chalkbeat writes.

But the story doesn’t quite end there. In general, Black and Latinx students and those attending high-poverty schools saw declines in reading scores where others did not, reports NBC News.

Still, those declines weren’t as steep as originally anticipated. Another testing company, Renaissance, found that the average elementary and middle school student “fell 7 percentile points in math and 1 point in reading,” Chalkbeat writes. For students in high-poverty schools, researchers saw a decline of 9 points in math and 2 points in reading. A modest difference, but one that could expand as time wears on.

But the most compelling piece of data may be the test scores we did not see: nearly a quarter of students who normally take the NWEA exam did not sit for the test this year. This gap has yet to be explained, but many reasons are possible. From NBC News:

Students might not have been tested because they couldn’t connect with their online classes on test day. They might have been absent from school because of illness or quarantines. They might attend schools that decided not to test at all this year, given the many new challenges schools face because of the pandemic. Or the students missing from NWEA’s data might not be in school at all.


“While there’s some good news here, we want to stress that not all students are represented in the data,” Beth Tarasawa, NWEA’s executive vice president of research, told Chalkbeat.

There were also fewer schools that gave the test this year. The NWEA’s MAP test measures progress in math and reading specifically, and isn’t mandatory, unlike state tests.


The drop in test-takers tracks with drops in student enrollment around the country. According to NBC News, one recent study estimated that 3 million of the nation’s most vulnerable children—foster children, English-language learners, children experiencing housing insecurity or with learning disabilities—could end up leaving school.

The data is also limited in what it captures, only measuring performance from the spring to the start of the fall semester. As Chalkbeat writes, because most schools were shut down in the spring it created a more even playing field among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. That likely won’t be true at the end of the fall semester, where there are major differences across the country in who’s taking virtual classes and who have in-person teaching options. According to Chalkbeat, students of color and those attending high-poverty schools are more likely to be taking all-virtual classes, while more affluent students have been attending in-person classes (which parents have lauded as higher quality than online-only options).


The NWEA analysis hints at that rift, while also providing some meager comfort about the impact the spring and summer had on students, generally. But we still don’t know as much as we need to about how our most vulnerable students are faring, not just with regard to academic progress, but in their emotional and physical development. How has social isolation impacted kids holistically, and what impact would challenges like repeated courses have on their resilience (and further, how might it stretch resources at schools)? While a vaccine is on the horizon, Americans can expect their schools will continue to be battlegrounds over privilege, access and equity. Will vaccinations be mandatory? How will they be administered? How will teachers and administrators get in touch with students they lost over the last year?

There is even the question of whether paying such attention to metrics this year is ultimately worthwhile.


“I know that there’s a national need to track data, but is it really what’s best for our kids?” one teacher, concerned about the pressure of state exams later in the year, asked Chalkbeat.

We know the novel coronavirus and an ensuing recession has widened the gulf between the haves and have nots. But the extent to which our education system has tried to address that rift—or exacerbated it—remains to be fully evident.



I definitely need to sign up to offer math tutoring. Kids need help more than ever (I REALLY hope Biden takes some extreme measures to vastly improve our self-sabotaging public school system!), and I can easily give up a few hours a week to help some kids remotely.

I love that AOC is taking that energy to the limit, especially because I hadn’t thought of tutoring before I saw her initiative!