Educators, parents, and policymakers have been concerned about the effects of the pandemic on student learning ever since it forced the abrupt end of in-person instruction in March. In October, my colleagues and I estimated that 3 million students were at high risk of having had little to no education since then. NWEA, the organization that runs the popular MAP Growth exam, estimated in April 2020 that learning loss due to spring school closures and the “summer slide” would set students back, on average, by 30% of a year in reading and more than half a year in math.
The new school year has brought about new data on student performance, and the early returns seem less dire than those original projections — with a major caveat. In a new brief with fall data, NWEA found that students in their test sample started the 2020-21 school year in roughly the same place in reading compared with similar students at the start of 2019-20, and about 5-10 percentile points lower in math. This was a huge sample of 4.4 million students spanning grades 3 through 8, so relatively minor slowdowns in math progress seems worth celebrating.
But these findings are not all good news. The authors note that many of the observable declines were concentrated disproportionately among Black and Hispanic student populations. Biggest of all, fully 25% of students who took the MAP last year didn’t take it this year. In a “normal” year, that rate of dropoff is more like 15%, which suggests that there are many students missing from this year’s data. These could be new homeschoolers or private school enrollees, or they could be disconnected from the school system altogether.
This aligns with other early state-level estimates of enrollment declines. Connecticut’s fall 2020 enrollment is down roughly 3%; so is that of Washington and Missouri. Georgia’s state enrollment numbers are down 2.2%. Most of those declines are concentrated in kindergarten and pre-K, often in double digits. Each of these newly available data points seem to provide evidence of a big picture that is potentially devastating: as many as three million students missing from school.
It’s important to consider here that these missing students — missing from school, and missing from the NWEA MAP data — include those most likely to be deeply affected by the pandemic. In an addendum to the NWEA brief, authors Angela Johnson and Megan Kuhfeld warn that these new learning loss estimates must be considered with this in mind: that the students being tested now are on average less racially diverse (and whiter) and attending socioeconomically more advantaged schools. This is emblematic of what we have seen playing out across the country all year. Generally speaking, more well-off students and their families have the resources to withstand the pressure of the pandemic to an extent that their lower-income peers do not, resulting in two increasingly divergent education systems: one where frequent testing, hybrid learning, and private tutoring are available — and one where they are not.
While this challenge is immense and likely to be with us for some time to come, there are action steps policymakers can take immediately that will better position states and districts for the long haul. The new enrollment figures underscore an urgent need for improved attendance and enrollment data and faster reporting that will enable schools to be responsive and flexible in tracking down “missing” students. There is also a need for attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of students’ unmet needs, and for collaboration with social service organizations and other community-based organizations that can work to meet those needs. And states can start by providing the funding that can make these interventions possible.
For more on the 3 million students missing in the margins, you can read Bellwether’s report here.