Massachusetts Achievement Gap Has Widened in Wake of Pandemic

Lower-income students lagging badly in making up learning loss.

A young girl on the playground at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester on October 1, 2020. (Michael Jonas/CommonWealth Beacon)

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While students across the country continue to struggle to make up the learning loss from the pandemic, with many states seeing the gulf separating the achievement of poor and non-poor students growing larger, a study led by researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities says Massachusetts has the seen the largest widening of that gap of any the states they examined.

Massachusetts students lost the equivalent of about two-thirds of a typical year of math learning and two-fifths of a year in reading from 2019 to 2022, according to the report from the Center for Education Research Policy at Harvard and the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford. Many of the state’s Gateway Cities, home to lots of the state’s poorer students, saw declines of as much as a full year of learning. While many districts began to see achievement gains from 2022 to 2023 – the first full year when students returned to in-person learning – many Gateway Cities saw achievement levels continue to drop, making the achievement gap even larger now than it was before the pandemic.

“No one in Massachusetts wants to leave poor kids footing the bill for the pandemic, but that is the path we are on,” said Thomas Kane, faculty director of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and one of the study’s co-authors.

The gap within Massachusetts between poor and non-poor students is now roughly half a grade wider than it was in 2019, according to the analysis of achievement trends across 15 states, a finding that shows just how much harder the school disruption hit lower-income students here – and how uneven the recovery from it has been. Five of the 15 states actually recorded a narrowing of the poor/non-poor gap in one or both subjects.

Kane says without focused effort by districts and the state to address the growing achievement gap, research suggests poor students in Massachusetts will face setbacks tied to the pandemic that extend into adulthood, affecting everything from lifetime earnings to incarceration rates.

Thomas Kane: “No one in Massachusetts wants to leave poor kids footing the bill for the pandemic, but that is the path we are on.” (Frank Curran)

Many districts with lots of students from higher-income households began to see achievement start to bounce back between 2022 to 2023, following large drops during the pandemic. In Longmeadow, for example, a well-off suburb of Springfield, proficiency rates for grade 3-8 reading went from 61 percent in 2022 to 64 percent in 2023 and in math rose from 58 percent to 65 percent.

In many districts with large populations of low-income students, however, it’s been a very different story.

Lynn, where 74 percent of students are low-income, has recorded the largest drop in reading and math proficiency rates in the state since the pandemic, with the achievement falloff from the COVID school shutdowns continuing even after the return to classroom instruction. The district’s grade 3-8 reading proficiency rate fell from 38 percent in 2019 to 21 percent in 2022, before falling two points further to 19 percent in 2023. In math, proficiency fell by more than half during the pandemic, from 37 percent in 2019 to 15 percent in 2022. But the slide continued in 2023, when math proficiency fell to 14 percent.

“Our student achievement is always a top concern, so I think it is absolutely troubling to see the trends we’re experiencing,” said Mayor Jared Nicholson, who also chairs the Lynn school committee. The district is “committed to addressing and reversing the learning loss and getting students what they need to close the achievement gaps we’re experiencing,” he said.

Change, measured in the share of one grade of learning, in the gap separating poor and non-poor students in 15 states from 2019 to 2023. Positive numbers reflect a growing gap; negative numbers indicate a closing of the gap. (Source: Education Recovery Scorecard, Center for Education Research Policy at Harvard University and the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University)

Kane said there is no single explanation for the widening achievement gulf between poor and non-poor students. But he said many students from higher-income households saw less learning loss to begin with during the pandemic, and they were far more likely than their lower-income peers to have families that sought out private tutoring or other ways to make up for school closures.

Meanwhile, some of the districts that have seen the biggest achievement declines also saw a  huge growth in student groups that face particularly steep learning challenges. In Lynn, the share of the district population made up of English language learners rose 75 percent over the course of the pandemic, from 25 percent in 2019 to 43 percent today.

Framingham, where 54 percent of the district’s 9,100 students are low-income, also saw a steep drop in achievement during the pandemic, with no recovery seen in the first full year in which students returned to in-person classes. English proficiency for grades 3-8 fell from 40 percent in 2019 to 27 percent in 2022, but showed no recovery in 2023. For math, proficiency fell from 37 percent in 2019 to 24 percent in 2022, and then dropped an additional 2 points to 22 percent in 2023.

“Yes, we’re concerned,” said Robert Tremblay, Framingham’s superintendent, who said the district has deployed math and literacy coaches to every school as part of the effort to reverse the pandemic slide.

Edward Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said the widening gulf between poor students and their better-off peers should be getting more attention from state and local leaders. “I think it’s pretty damning for Massachusetts,” he said. “As we consider ourselves a leader, it’s pretty disconcerting to see the impacts here and what appears to be the lack of rebound other states have experienced, particularly in some of the Gateway Cities.”

Massachusetts received more than $2.8 billion in federal COVID relief money for schools, aid that has been allocated through three rounds of funding. Districts are currently devising plans for how they’ll use the final round of money, which must be spent by September.

Although federal rules require that at least 20 percent of the money is spent on academics, Lynn is planning to spend about 30 percent of the $42 million in its last round of federal relief funding on learning recovery. That will include funding for afterschool tutoring and summer school classes, but also a lot of programming during the school day focused on learning recovery.

“When we have a student in schools is when you really have to take advantage of that time,” said Evonne Alvarez, the district superintendent. “When you focus on after or before school, you’re really at the mercy of that student and whether they can get there or stay.”

Framingham is committing more than a third of its final round of federal funding – $4.7 million out of $14.4 million – to mitigating learning loss through tutoring and afterschool programming, and funding for reading teachers.

“We’re not quite sure what the variable is that’s causing learning to not grow at the rate we want it to be,” said Tremblay, the Framingham superintendent. “It’s not for lack of investment in resources.”

Kane said districts need to allocate even more of the federal aid to learning loss if they are serious about seeing students recover academically, especially low-income students who have fallen behind the farthest.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, I have tried but failed to get the message across that districts needed to do the math on their plans,” he said.

Kane said that means taking stock of the impact of strategies like high-dose tutoring, through which students can make up an entire added year of learning, or summer school classes, which can remediate about a quarter of a year of learning loss. Even districts employing some of those strategies, he said, aren’t doing it at the scale needed to remediate the losses students have experienced. “Nobody’s actually doing a plan that makes sure every district has enough of those things to allow kids to catch up,” he said.

Kane said it’s not too late for districts to redouble their focus on tutoring and summer school with the final round of federal funding. He also thinks districts should be more transparent in communicating to parents how far behind their children are, something he thinks has been widely lacking.

Kane thinks education leaders and families alike haven’t come to terms with the long-term impact of pandemic learning losses, if they aren’t remediated. He pointed to research on the state’s strong K-12 achievement growth over the last several decades, outcomes that he said are correlated with increased earnings, higher post-secondary educational attainment, lower arrest rates, and lower teen pregnancy rates. He said all the positive trends connected to achievement growth are likely to move “in the opposite direction” if scores decline and remain low.

State officials acknowledged the greater toll the pandemic took on higher-need students, and emphasized the steps taken in recent years to revamp the school aid formula and direct more money to districts serving those students.

“Massachusetts is proud to lead the nation in student achievement, but we recognize that more needs to be done to address learning loss, particularly for English learners and students from low-income families,” said state education department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis in a statement. “That’s why we have fully funded the Student Opportunity Act, which is targeted at districts with high concentrations of poverty, and proposed a nation-leading literacy strategy.”

Massachusetts has a long history of deference to local school districts, and the federal pandemic aid did not authorize states to tell districts how to spend the money. But Kane insists the state could do much more to highlight the urgency of the problem and prod districts to do more to address it.

He pointed as an example to Texas, which didn’t prescribe how districts spent the federal money but passed a law requiring that all students not testing at proficiency be provided at least 30 hours of small group instruction next year.

“It should be alarming that inequality has increased and we’re not making progress closing that increase that happened during the pandemic,” he said. “We’re the ones who supposedly care about education equity.”

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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