New Research on Academic Impacts from COVID-19 Closures Highlights Gains in Reading and Setbacks in Math

NWEA, a not-for-profit provider of assessment solutions, released new research today that reveals patterns of steady gains in reading and modest setbacks in math resulting from COVID-19 school closures. The research, Learning During COVID-19: Initial Findings on Students’ Reading and Math Achievement and Growthis a follow-up to a study released by NWEA in April 2020 that projected the potential academic impact of COVID-19 disruptions modeled on its well-documented summer learning loss research.

The new research analyzed data from nearly 4.4 million U.S. students in grades 3-8 who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in fall 2020 to determine how students performed this fall relative to a typical school year; how much students have grown academically since schools physically closed in March 2020; and how fall 2020 test scores compared to the projections made by NWEA in April 2020.

Key findings of the research include:

  • Average scores for math were lower – between 5 and 10 percentile points– for students this year as compared to same-grade students last year.
  • In almost all grades, most students made some learning gains in both reading and math since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, gains in math were lower on average in fall 2020 than prior years, resulting in more students falling behind relative to their prior standing.
  • Some differences by racial/ethnic groups are emerging in the fall 2020 data, but it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these initial results. Student groups especially vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic were more likely to be missing from our data. Thus, we have an incomplete understanding of how achievement this fall may differ across student groups and may be underestimating the impacts of COVID-19. Educational leaders should carefully consider this shift in the students tested as well as other contextual data as they make decisions on how to best support their students’ growth and recovery.

“Preliminary fall data suggests that, on average, students are faring better than we had feared with continued academic progress in reading and minor setbacks in math due to COVID-19 related school disruptions,” said Beth Tarasawa, EVP of Research at NWEA. “While there’s some good news here, we want to stress that not all students are represented in the data, especially from our most marginalized communities. This increases the urgency to better connect to students and families who may be weathering the COVID storm very differently.”

As the short- and long-term academic and non-academic impacts of COVID-19 are yet to be fully understood and realized, NWEA, along with numerous collaborators, has developed a robust research program to inform policies and practices enacted to mitigate these impacts, explicitly focused on implications for equity, and help move the nation forward in these difficult times.

Considerations and recommendations include:

  • Continue federal and state funding to school districts impacted by the pandemic – The safe return to classrooms and the additional educational and child welfare interventions needed for recovery all require additional funds. Federal and state government leaders must continue to provide funding as the pandemic will have lingering impacts on our children and school systems.
  • Transparency in data reporting to effectively target resources to those most in need – Educational leaders and states are encouraged to collect and transparently report data on students’ opportunity to learn, academic achievement, and social and emotional wellbeing to inform our understanding of students’ unmet needs. We can gain important insights by including data broken out to show any differences for students of color, English Learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families, who are especially vulnerable due to a variety of barriers. As we collectively work to meet these new challenges in education, such crucial information allows educational leaders to best target resources to those most in need.
  • Equitable access to high-quality math teaching and learning – NWEA’s math expert – Ted Coe – suggests a continued focus on meeting students where they are at in their learning, not where they normally would be. He encourages educators to focus on packing, rather than unpacking, standards – that is, figure out how students are thinking about the math rather than how well they do math procedures. Powerful student thinking will be much longer lasting and flexibly adapted even though the results are less immediate and less evident.

“While our research highlights concerns, especially for math, the results show signs of optimism that is a reflection of a strong determination to serve our students,” said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA. “Since schools initially closed in March, we’ve seen educators and families step up and pull together in new collaborations to meet the challenge of instruction during COVID. But even through these diligent efforts, our data shows that school isn’t working for all students so we must continue to provide support while also monitoring closely the multiple indicators that inform how students are weathering this pandemic.”

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