Since the pandemic began in March 2020, researchers at NWEA have been analyzing test data to understand the pandemic’s academic impacts on students nationwide.
At first, the Portland-based assessment company projected the potential impacts of the pandemic using research following past school closures.
“Our initial projections were that we expected to see impacts of the pandemic on reading and math,” said director of NWEA’s Center for School and Student Progress Karyn Lewis.
Those projections turned out to be accurate. Once students were back in school, whether virtual or in-person, academic growth in math was down, while reading progress remained “steady.”
“At the start of this most recent school year, our data seemed to suggest that yes, we were still definitely seeing signs of significant levels of unfinished learning,” Lewis said. “Unfinished learning” is the term educators use to reflect the gap in academic learning students experienced as a result of pandemic-related disruptions.
Using data from over 8.3 million students in 2015-2019 and 2018-2022, NWEA’s newest policy brief shows that students are making progress, but are still behind where they should be. Lewis calls it a good news, bad news situation.
“The good news is that the gains students made this year are parallel to what we would expect based on pre-pandemic trends. So that’s good news, because it’s better than what we saw last year, when students were making gains at a more sluggish pace,” Lewis said.
“But, on balance, it’s also bad news in some ways, because the gains students are making are only average at best.”
According to the assessment data, students are still years away from pre-pandemic achievement levels, especially students from high-poverty schools and students who identify as Black, Latino, or Indigenous.
“Recovery is going to be absolutely a multiyear effort,” Lewis said.
Those gaps between current achievement and historic achievement show the pandemic’s ongoing impact on student learning, and that things won’t be back to “normal” immediately, especially with school closures and other inconsistencies that continued last year.
“At the start of ‘21-’22, we all had hopes of this really strong comeback,” Lewis said.
" … but of course COVID had other plans for us and we had ongoing struggles with staff shortages and new variants that caused illnesses among students and staff. There was the whole process of just getting kids re-acclimated to being in the classroom and being part of a learning community, it was still a fraught year that was really challenging for everyone involved.”
Other recently released research reflects NWEA’s findings, and show some students suffered more of the negative effects than others.
More findings on impacts of pandemic on learning
Another recent report from the Government Accountability Office uses survey data to draw conclusions about the impact of the pandemic on teachers and families.
The research, released in June 2022, included findings from teachers that reported less academic progress for the 2020-2021 school year. More than half of teachers (52%) reported more students starting the school year behind compared to pre-pandemic years, with 45% of teachers reporting that “at least half” of students ended the year behind.
At the same time, students and teachers were experiencing the impacts of a global pandemic, including experiencing trauma and increased stress.
Lewis warned that the NWEA research only covers a “slim slice” of what students have gone through in the last two and a half years.
“We are looking at what their reading and math achievement has been, but there are so many other dimensions, so many rich dimensions about students’ lives. In particular, we can’t say anything about their social and emotional wellbeing,” Lewis said.
“We know that the being home, the being isolated, the impacts of the pandemic were wide ranging … those are obviously going to be tied to their math and reading achievement; those aren’t things that happen in isolation.”
A July 2022 report from UnidosUS, a Latino advocacy organization, showed disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on Latino students. The organization surveyed Latino parents who reported increased concerns about students falling behind. The report included data that showed Latino students in high-poverty schools faced larger declines in academic growth.
A May 2022 report from NWEA and the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research found academic achievement gaps widened for schools operating virtually compared to schools that returned to in-person in 2020-2021.
This research is coming out as school administrators are looking a few years out, when massive amounts of federal aid will be exhausted.
NWEA researchers responsible for the May report estimated that “high poverty districts that were remote for most of 2020-21 will need to spend nearly all of their federal aid on academic recovery in order to eliminate the losses their students have experienced.”
School districts have received funding from the federal government through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to help students recover from the pandemic. They are required to dedicate at least 20% of funds to addressing learning loss, and districts so far have directed money to a variety of things including summer school tutoring, and new gymnasiums.
Oregon school districts have millions of dollars left to spend. But the deadline to spend that extra funding is fast approaching.
A “mismatched” timeline for spending federal dollars
As part of their reports, NWEA researchers have been predicting how many years it would take to close the learning gaps created by interruptions to learning over the last two and a half years.
For an average elementary student, the prediction for full recovery from the pandemic’s disruptions is three years.
For older students, it’s longer — five or more years.
Lewis said part of the reason to share this latest research is to ensure schools are spending their federal COVID-19 recovery funds wisely. However, Lewis said the federal deadline for spending recovery dollars will come before the anticipated time it will take for students to catch up academically.
“The reason we want to publicize this is because there’s this timeline for spending federal recovery dollars that is absolutely mismatched to the timeline that we’re estimating to actually reach full recovery, which is really alarming,” Lewis said.
School districts across the country have until September 2024 to spend federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Lewis said she’s worried about the “fiscal cliff” schools face once those federal dollars run out.
She said later this summer, NWEA is planning to release a joint report with school districts, the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research, and the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, focused on federal spending efforts.
“We know schools are implementing all of these interventions to help spur recovery, but what seems to be working?” Lewis said.
She said the report will focus on not only what is working, but what isn’t working, using achievement data to further show the effects of learning recovery efforts.
Lewis said school districts should put more support toward students who have the most learning to make up.
“If we use this kind of one-size-fits-all approach that every kid in the school’s going to get high dosage tutoring, that will meet the needs of some kids that have been less impacted,” Lewis said.
“But it will absolutely leave behind and continue to have these widening gaps for kids that have been hardest hit.”
Though there are some “bright spots” in this research, Lewis pointed out, there are still opportunities for improvement — a chance for school districts to better serve students they weren’t serving before.
The latest findings come with a familiar caveat. There are many students not included in this data, a problem NWEA has highlighted in previous research. In 2020, NWEA reported that hundreds of thousands of students who had consistently tested were no longer showing up in the data. Though Lewis said this newest policy brief is more inclusive now that students are back in school and testing, it still doesn’t tell the whole story.
“This isn’t a complete picture,” Lewis said. “And it still is absolutely possible that even though these results are bleak, it could be worse than this.”