Students Could Have Lost as Much as 183 Days of Learning Time in Reading, 232 Days in Math During First Four Months of Largely Virtual Schooling

(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

The last time Deyanira Hooper’s son Jeremy took California’s state assessment, he was 15 points from meeting proficiency standards. But when schools closed last spring, his live instruction from a teacher dropped to 20 minutes every three days.

Even though her fifth-grader is now getting three hours of class on Zoom each day from his Los Angeles school, she’s worried that his scores will dip much further the next time he takes the test, especially in reading comprehension. And she’s concerned that her eighth-grade daughter Noemi won’t be ready for high school next year.

“Teachers are teaching at the same pace for everybody,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Some kids finish, and that’s good. If they didn’t, it’s like, ‘Too bad, we’re in a pandemic.’”

Like parents across the country, Hooper worries about the learning her children have missed and the long-term effects it will have on their progress. Data released last week by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University provided a sobering estimate of the learning loss caused by school closures: Across 19 states, it ranged from a third of a year to a year in reading, and from three-fourths of a school year to 232 days in math. The report suggested frequent assessment going forward and said new approaches to teaching will be needed to “plot a recovery course.”

For the report, CREDO worked with NWEA, a nonprofit assessment organization, to build on earlier estimates of the impact of school closures and the limitations of virtual instruction on student learning. Now, about a month into a new school year, the Stanford results present a more alarming description of the challenges for teachers in a year where additional disruptions are likely.

‘Upsetting, but needed’

“The takeaways from this analysis are upsetting, but needed,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the nonprofit Collaborative for Student Success, which advocates for high academic standards and holding schools accountable for student progress.

The report — which describes the results as “scientifically grounded estimates of what happened to students since March” — fills a gap left by the absence of annual state assessments this year, Cowen said.

“However, those annual tests remain the best tool to inform accountability systems, school report cards, and continuous improvement efforts over the long-term,” he said. “As we recover from this emergency, we need that kind of consistent, reliable data to help students succeed.”

Based on past estimates of summer learning loss, NWEA predicted in April that some students would experience setbacks typical of a summer, while others could fall off track by a year.

Stanford’s results, while still “approximations,” are more representative of students than NWEA’s national sample because the model includes data on every student in the 19 states, said Margaret Raymond, the director of the research center.

Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, agreed that the study presents a sort of “post mortem” of what happened to student performance last year. But she said it’s important to dig further and examine issues such as which students lacked reliable internet, whether students were already behind grade level prior to the pandemic, and which schools had low participation in distance learning.

Using CARES funds to catch up 

The results show wide variation across states. For example, in reading, the average loss ranged from 57 days of learning in North Carolina to a full school year — 183 days — in South Carolina. In math, days of learning lost ranged from 136 in Wisconsin to 232 in Illinois.

Ryan Brown, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education, challenged the study’s approach.

“It assumes no instruction took place after March,” Brown said. “South Carolina teachers, and I am sure others across America, would strongly disagree.”

But he added that the state has poured much of the funding it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act into helping students recover or maintain skills. Over $50 million was used for Academic Recovery Camps — four-week, in-person summer sessions focused on reading and math.

With another $159.2 million, the state added five days to the beginning of this school year for students in preschool through eighth grade. The program was targeted to students more likely to fall behind, including those who didn’t have good attendance in virtual classes. The students were assessed at the beginning of the year and will be tested again in December.

Other researchers agree that many students have probably lost some ground, but raised questions about how much. The study assumes “that students learn at the same rate in the spring as in the rest of the year, even though the end of the school year often has more non-instructional time relative to early times in the year,” said Elaine Allensworth, with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Raymond of CREDO responded that because of school closures, typical end-of-the-year activities like field trips and school fairs didn’t take place, but there were examples of districts that ramped up virtual instruction quickly. That would help explain the wide range within states, in which students in some districts lost very little learning time and others lost a full year, she said

Kathleen Lynch, a professor at the University of Connecticut, noted that research on the summer slide — and how it affects different groups of students — remains mixed. “I do think some caution is warranted in making projections about COVID learning losses extrapolating from summer learning loss studies,” she said.

Raymond agreed that the research base on summer learning loss is fairly thin, but maintained that NWEA has “the deepest bench of data and experience” on the issue. She added that it will be valuable to get assessments from this fall “to gain a better sense of how the analyses fared.”

In math, Lynch said, it’s important for teachers to continue this fall with grade-level content for all students while still identifying those needing extra help. Math instruction in the U.S., she added, is often repetitive.

“Adding more review time to an already-redundant math curriculum may hold students back unnecessarily, crowding out chances to introduce new content in depth,” she said. “Teachers should be provided with time to meet with their colleagues in adjacent grades to help students recover specific missed material, while avoiding unnecessary duplication of mathematical content.”

Allensworth added that the results don’t suggest teachers, or parents, should narrow the focus on instruction to reading and math “or double down on those subjects at the expense of learning about other things going on in the world.”

‘Plan better for next spring’

The report suggests that some districts serving students with greater needs might be less equipped to implement recovery plans. Raymond said she’s not recommending that states dictate how districts approach instruction and intervention for students this year, but that some might have to reach out for greater expertise and work with community-based organizations to “get kids back on track.”

In a report on reopening released in August, the Learning Policy Institute, also at Stanford, said expanding the school day — with an emphasis on key academic standards, tutoring programs, and working with community organizations like the YMCA — is “a means by which to recover lost learning opportunities, whether in person or online.”

Kowalski stressed the importance of conducting assessments in the spring of 2021 and “getting at the heart of the data” demonstrating why students might not participate, such as school buildings still being closed or parents opting out.

She added that because districts are still at varying stages of reopening in person this fall, it will likely be next year before schools have a better understanding of which students need the most support.

“I don’t know that we will recover any learning loss,” she said, ‘but we could all start to plan better for next spring.”

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