After the coronavirus pandemic sent a jolt through the American education system, interrupting the learning of millions of children, a new report offers a glimmer of hope: By the end of the last school year, many students had returned to a normal pace of academic growth for the first time since the pandemic began.
Still, the pace was not nearly fast enough to have made up for steep pandemic losses.
At this rate, elementary school students may need at least three years to catch up to where they would have been had the pandemic not happened, and middle school students may need five years or more, according to the report released on Tuesday by NWEA, a nonprofit organization that provides academic assessments to schools. Researchers examined the results of math and reading assessments for more than eight million students in approximately 25,000 schools. The report did not look at high schools.
“I don’t want to lose sight that this is something to celebrate,” said Karyn Lewis, a senior researcher at NWEA.
“However — and it’s a big however — we still have unfinished learning,” she said. “It is going to take above-average growth to get us out of this hole.”
The federal government made its largest ever one-time investment in American schools — about $190 billion — to support pandemic recovery. But the latest estimates suggest that many students may still need help long after the money runs out. School districts must allocate the last of their funds by September 2024.
Recovery is expected to take the longest for groups that were most affected by the pandemic, including low-income students and Black, Hispanic and Native American students. Research has found that extended remote learning was a primary driver of lost learning, widening racial and economic gaps during the pandemic. High-poverty schools tended to spend more time learning remotely, as did Black and Hispanic students.
“There would be profound consequences if we allow these achievement losses to become permanent,” said Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist who has been raising the alarm about the magnitude of intervention needed.
By his calculus, students at high-poverty schools that stayed remote for more than half of the 2020-21 school year lost the equivalent of 22 weeks of instruction.
Yet many common interventions do not have enough firepower to make up a gap of that size.
For example, summer school typically brings about five weeks of gain, he estimated. Another popular option, doubling math instruction over an entire school year, may yield a bit more: up to 10 weeks of instructional time.
Even frequent, small group tutoring — considered one of the best, if most expensive, options — cannot single-handedly make up for the worst of the pandemic’s impact. Dr. Kane estimated that when done well over the course of a school year, tutoring may yield the equivalent of about 19 weeks gained.
It is unlikely that every student who needs help would receive all of these interventions. Even with an influx of federal cash, there is often not enough money to give all students the full support they need.
Many places have had to be strategic.
Tennessee has gone all in on tutoring, using federal funding to start an expansive, statewide program that is being used by more than half of the state’s school districts. About 150,000 elementary and middle school students are receiving tutoring as part of the program, about 15 percent of all students in the state.
At North Clinton Elementary School in Clinton, Tenn., where more than 90 percent of students qualify as low income, that has meant targeting students who are on the cusp of being able to read on grade level.
For 45 minutes every school day, these “bubble” students head to a staff room, or the office in the school library, and work closely with a teacher or an aide. At ratios of no more than three students per tutor, they practice more challenging aspects of reading comprehension, like how to summarize a reading passage or infer what a character may have been thinking.
The results have been promising: At the end of the school year, about 50 percent of the North Clinton students participating in the state program advanced to being “on track” for their grade level, school officials said.
“It’s going to change the trajectory for students,” said Jamie Jordan, the assistant director for the school district.
Still, other students are even further behind. They meet in their own tutoring groups, which are not supported by the state program.
For many of the most vulnerable students, the stakes of this moment are enormous.
Low-income students and Black, Hispanic and Native students entered the pandemic behind their more advantaged peers and Asian and white students, in part because of disparities that begin early in childhood. With fewer resources and a lack of access to preschool, many children are already behind by the time they begin kindergarten, a gap that can persist throughout their school years.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these gaps.
For example, white fifth graders have historically performed above the national average on math assessments; like other students, they experienced a decline during the pandemic, according to the report. But the decline — seven percentile points, from the 64th to the 57th percentile — still leaves them above the national average.
Hispanic students, on the other hand, showed a larger drop on recent assessments — falling 10 percentile points from the 44th to the 34th percentile — and were left further behind.
“To assume that all students at all schools are on an equal playing field once this is all over would be false,” said Cassandra R. Davis, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the impact of disasters like hurricanes and flooding on marginalized schools.
After other disasters, she has seen wealthier communities recover well, but lower-income communities often receive less support. “Their time of recovery is much longer,” she said.
There are also indications that middle school students are struggling more than elementary school students.
For example, from last spring to this spring, seventh graders showed only modest improvements in reading and no change in math, according to the report. Eighth graders continued to lose ground in math, the only age group in the report to do so.
Kym LeBlanc-Esparza, the deputy superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo., said she had seen a similar trend with middle school students in her school district, which serves about 78,000 students in the Denver area. The gap has been especially persistent in math.
Dr. LeBlanc-Esparza believes the difference is due, in part, to changes in the curriculum as students become older. While parents might have been able to help students along in their elementary years, students often need more direct instruction as they begin advanced concepts, like fractions, decimals and percentages.
“Most parents don’t feel quite as comfortable leaning into that in the same way they do around alphabet and phonics and teaching kids colors,” Dr. LeBlanc-Esparza said.
About 34 percent of students in her school district are considered low income, and over the past three years, she said, the educational gap between low-income students and students who do not live in poverty has grown year over year.
In the race to catch up, her district is training teachers — and even volunteers from the community — to serve as tutors.
“It creates an incredible sense of urgency,” Dr. LeBlanc-Esparza said. “It says to us as educators, we have a moral imperative to look at this data and do something differently.”