Erin Einhorn, NBC News, December 1, 2020
When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of most U.S. schools in the spring, students were thrown into new and unfamiliar ways of learning. Special education students and children learning English lost support that their schools struggled to provide online. Many students had no access to computers or the internet and were completely cut off from their teachers.
The true toll these disruptions have taken on student learning won’t be known for months or years, but new reports from national education-testing organizations have begun to offer an early look at that impact.
The latest is a report from NWEA, formerly the Northwest Evaluation Association, which analyzed the results of tests given to nearly 4.4 million U.S. students in grades three through eight this fall and found that most fell short in math, scoring an average of 5 to 10 percentile points behind students who took the same test last year.
While a majority of students did better than expected in reading — scoring at levels similar to typical nonpandemic years — this wasn’t true for Black and Hispanic students and those who attend high-poverty schools. Those groups of students saw slight declines, suggesting the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing educational disparities, possibly setting children who were already behind their white and more affluent peers even further behind.
“It’s a reason for concern and it’s a reason to really focus our attention on helping catch kids up,” said Megan Kuhfeld, an NWEA senior research scientist and the lead author of the study.
Kuhfeld and her colleagues analyzed scores from NWEA’s MAP Growth assessments, which thousands of U.S. schools give to students multiple times a year to track their progress in math and reading. They found evidence that pandemic-related school closings have robbed some vulnerable students of important skills that could hamper their progress unless their parents and teachers act quickly to help them catch up.
“They could fall further and further behind if they have holes in their learning,” Kuhfeld said, noting that, for example, it’s hard to learn to multiply fractions if you haven’t mastered adding and subtracting them.
But more worrisome than the findings themselves is the fact that they only capture part of the picture. The study was limited by the fact that a high number of students — 1 in 4 — who typically take the NWEA’s widely used MAP assessment in the fall didn’t take it this year.
Students might not have been tested because they couldn’t connect with their online classes on test day. They might have been absent from school because of illness or quarantines. They might attend schools that decided not to test at all this year, given the many new challenges schools face because of the pandemic. Or the students missing from NWEA’s data might not be in school at all.
Many districts across the country have reported significant drops in enrollment this fall, with one study estimating that 3 million of the nation’s most vulnerable children — those who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are learning English — could be displaced from school.
NWEA’s findings echo the results of another national testing organization, Renaissance Learning, Inc., which reviewed scores from more than 3 million U.S. students in grades one through eight on another widely used school assessment called Star and found that reading scores were down slightly and math scores were down significantly compared to a typical year. Renaissance, which also noted a drop in the number of students who took its assessments this fall, similarly found that Black, Hispanic and Native American students, as well as rural students and those who attend schools that serve high-poverty populations, lost more ground than students with more advantages.