As spring 2021 state assessment results come in across the country, the academic impacts of COVID-19 are no longer theoretical. The preponderance of data points in the same direction: student learning was significantly impacted by the pandemic. States are reporting significant decreases in math, reading, and science proficiency since 2019 — with students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families among the most impacted.
How did we get here, and what can schools, districts, and policymakers do about it?
Learning loss is not a new concept in education, although it might go by many names. In its simplest form, it’s the result of a significant disruption in education that can lead students to lose previously acquired knowledge or skills, or shift to a learning trajectory that takes them further from grade level standards. Pre-pandemic studies looked at two kinds of learning loss 1) the “summer slide” or “summer setback” that many students experience between one school year and the next as well as 2) the short- and long-term academic effects of school closures due to weather and natural disasters.
In the rocky shifts to and from remote learning (and back again) over the past year and a half — often without sufficient support for educators and families — it seemed very likely that students would experience some form of learning loss, perhaps in entirely different ways than previously understood. Emerging studies throughout 2020-21 consistently showed that the negative academic effects of COVID-19 disruptions were real, and were most pronounced among historically marginalized student groups. But the idea of learning loss received surprising pushback, mostly from those who felt the term stigmatized students or blamed educators for circumstances outside of their control. Some claim that learning loss is a “myth” and indicative of “deficit framing” because it ignores the student learning during the pandemic outside of traditional curricula. Examples of non-traditional learning include resiliency, creativity, and technology skills. However, acknowledging the value of non-traditional skills doesn’t erase the importance or urgency of developing academic skills and knowledge that are essential for college and career readiness.
As states across the country analyze spring 2021 assessments, the results are often startling. Some examples from 2020-21 school year data include:
- North Carolina, where student scores decreased across all end-of-year assessments. In most cases, fewer than half of students were meeting grade level expectations.
- Minnesota, with a 7 percentage point decrease in students reading on grade level and an 11 percentage point decrease in on-grade-level math proficiency.
- Virginia, where the percentage of students passing state tests is down by 28 percentage points in math, 22 percentage points in science, and 9 percentage points in reading.
- Tennessee, which experienced a drop in overall statewide proficiency of five percentage points — with Nashville and Memphis schools that serve the largest proportions of students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners seeing an 8 and 11 percentage point decrease, respectively, in overall proficiency in math, social studies, reading, and science.
There are important caveats to these results at the student, school, and state level, and comparisons to prior years should be made with caution. Students may have also been tested under unusual pandemic conditions and some states shortened or changed their assessments this year with permission from the U.S. Department of Education. Furthermore, some, but not all, states have reported atypically low test participation rates. Federal law usually mandates greater than 95% test participation at the state, district, and school level. North Carolina and Tennessee reported 90% and 95% student participation, respectively, but only 75-80% of students in Virginia and 78% of students in Minnesota took those states’ assessments.
Even with these caveats, evidence is mounting that learning loss is a real challenge facing schools across the country. Some see these data as representative of “arbitrary” academic standards. While one can reasonably debate the utility of academic standards that align with age-based grade levels, the fact remains that, as education author and commentator Elliot Haspel put it, skills that students would have otherwise learned to a certain level during a normal school year were not learned during the pandemic year.
It’s time to move beyond the semantics of what to call the problem and instead figure out what we’re going to do about it. Here are four key recommendations for states and local school districts to address learning loss in the current 2021-22 school year:
- Continue leveraging data to provide targeted academic support by regularly administering interim assessments to monitor student progress and using the data to drive rapid cycles of improvement — where changes in strategy or approach to academic intervention can happen in real-time as needed.
- Adopt accelerated learning strategies in lieu of traditional remediation and train teachers on effective accelerated learning pedagogy, which has been found to be more effective than traditional remediation in helping students regain pre-pandemic skills and pick up where they left off — especially for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
- Supplement increased academic investments with robust mental health supports by providing resources for adequate numbers of trained professional counselors and social workers, wraparound services, and the high-quality delivery of evidenced-based social and emotional learning curricula.
- Adopt approaches to intentionally teach and assess non-academic skills in a traditional school setting, recognizing that schools are responsible for teaching students essential life skills such as time management, goal setting, self advocacy, effective communication, and resiliency.
Acknowledging learning loss does not mean that students learned nothing. It does recognize that students’ academic learning experiences were deeply affected by the pandemic in ways that need urgent action. Students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic learning conditions.
It’s important that we name the challenge and it’s incumbent upon states and local school districts to invest the resources into addressing this issue, or risk further exacerbating long-standing educational inequities.