Pandemic Emergency May Be Officially Over, but Education’s Long COVID Continues
With progress stalled, students need over 4 extra months of school to catch up to pre-pandemic levels. Middle school, Black & Latino kids need more.
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The COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended this spring. Unfortunately, the educational emergency coming out of the pandemic is far from over.
According to the latest research from my colleagues at NWEA, COVID’s impacts continue to reverberate through the American school system. Researchers Karyn Lewis and Megan Kuhfeld analyzed test score data from approximately 6.7 million students in grades 3 to 8 in 20,000 public schools who took MAP Growth reading and math assessments last academic year. They then compared the rates of growth for students throughout the 2022-23 school year against typical, pre-pandemic rates.
They found that, in nearly all grades, achievement gains last year fell short of pre-pandemic trends. Because students are behind where they were before the pandemic, they would need to make greater-than-ordinary progress to get back on track. NWEA data show that isn’t happening; over the course of the 2022-23 school year, older students’ movement toward full recovery stalled.
The graph below shows the results in reading (blue) and math (magenta). Third graders showed some sign of rebounding, meaning they had above-normal achievement gains, but students in grades 4 to 8 all gained less quickly last year than what had been the typical pace prior to the pandemic.
NWEA researchers now estimate that on average, students will require interventions and support equivalent to 4.1 months of additional schooling to catch up to pre-COVID levels in reading and 4.5 months in math. Middle schoolers are particularly far behind relative to where their older peers were performing just a few years ago — needing the equivalent of an extra 9.1 months of learning in math and 7.4 months in reading.
Progress for students of all races and ethnicities grew at paces that fell short of pre-COVID averages in 2022-23, but the problem is pronounced for historically underserved students. Given the disparate amounts of unfinished learning that remain as of spring 2023, NWEA researchers estimate that Hispanic and Black students still need an additional 6.4 and 6.2 months of math instruction, respectively, to get back on track.
At this time last year, NWEA data showed some signs for cautious optimism. But progress has stalled for many learners, suggesting the road to recovery may be even longer than expected. The recent NAEP scores corroborate just how far students have fallen behind in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The question, of course, is why? While our national data can’t answer that, our partnerships with districts and states across the country provide some insight. Educators and leaders are doing all the right things — analyzing local data to understand which students need extra support and deploying evidence-based interventions to help. But that process is complex, and scaling up programs takes time. Indeed, the implementation challenges of recovery have been well documented, and it may take years from the launch of even the highest-quality programs to see improvements in student test scores.
Given these realities, the clear message is that recovery efforts must continue with urgency. While the data is helpful in understanding recovery trends, education leaders must look to their own information about student progress to target support to the kids who are the furthest behind. States and districts will also need ongoing resources to create long-term, sustainable recovery plans that meet the scale of the challenge.
Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds have been essential in supporting initial recovery efforts, but there’s just one more school year before those funds expire. Federal policymakers have provided guidance allowing the money to be spent after September 2024 (as long as it is obligated before then), but more is needed. Our data, and others, confirm that recovery will be a multi-year effort extending well past 2024. Federal and state policymakers need to provide sustained funding to enable school systems to rise to that challenge.
Ensuring that good data on student growth is available to parents, caregivers and communities is also an essential part of the recovery process. While educators see the ongoing effects of the pandemic in their classrooms every day, a recent Pew poll found that over half of families believe COVID-19 had only a temporary effect on their child’s education. State and district leaders must take on this perception gap by engaging families directly. That starts by providing them with clear and timely information about their child’s progress and achievement based on grade-level standards. Families can’t help to address students’ learning gaps if they don’t know they exist. And it will take schools and communities working together for years to come.
Schools are heading in the right direction, but much more sustained work and investment will be needed to get all kids fully back on track. From these and other data, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the depth and breadth of the crisis will demand a comprehensive and ongoing approach. Federal and state leaders must not lose patience and focus, and need to ensure that schools have the necessary resources and support to help students recover on the long road ahead.
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