What can the results of 5.3 million student assessments tell us about educational equity and the achievement gap in the COVID-19 era?

Has the pandemic widened the achievement gap?

What can the results of 5.3 million student assessments tell us about the state of educational equity in the COVID-19 era?

Maybe, but the pandemic didn’t affect everyone’s access to learning in the same way. Different states had different policies, as did different school districts. Individual students have different personal situations, such as siblings to care for, lack of proper nutrition at home, a chaotic home life, or any number of other complications that become magnified when school happens at home. And, of course, individual students may not have access to the internet, which, during the pandemic, can mean no access to books, libraries, other learning resources, or even a teacher.

Given those disparities, we thought it was important to see if there was a differential impact on different groups of students.

The findings

The short answer is, “Yes. There has been an observable, differential impact on some student groups.”

All students were impacted somewhat by the pandemic and its attendant learning disruptions, but those effects tended to be toward the lower end of prior predictions. On average, reading performance was only a single percentile lower than we’d expect to see in a more typical school year. Math achievement was affected more significantly, at an average of seven percentage points below expectations.

Among the groups more affected by learning disruptions, the differences tended to be minor, one or two percentage points more than the average. Those groups included:

● Black, Hispanic, and Native American students
● Students who attend schools that serve high-poverty populations
● Students who attend public rather than private schools
● Students in rural or small towns as opposed to suburban or urban schools

Despite the fact that these groups of students experienced slightly more learning losses than the general student population, those additional differences were small compared with the existing achievement gaps.

Clarifying context

The findings for both all students and at-risk students may feel like good news. And to a certain extent, they are! There were plenty of dire predictions made last spring about the coming learning loss that doesn’t seem to be borne out by these results.

However, there is still plenty of work to be done. While these findings may not reflect the gloomiest outcomes we were contemplating at the beginning of the pandemic, they also come from the beginning of the school year. Several months later, many students remain in remote learning environments and are likely experiencing some continuing learning loss.

Compounding the issue, different states and districts have continued with disparate responses, and individual students continue to struggle with barriers magnified by the pandemic that many of their peers do not have to deal with.

We are continuing to analyze the data as students are assessed throughout the school year. What we can be sure of now, however, is that the pandemic has affected student learning, and at-risk students are more likely to be affected, but the current magnitude of the setbacks are largely manageable through appropriate assessment and instruction.

A path forward

The path forward may lie, counterintuitively, with a group of students not traditionally seen as at-risk, but that has experienced a differential impact of its own. Of all elementary and middle school students, fifth graders showed the largest impact of building closures in mathematics. Further, fifth grade is when students typically encounter fraction concepts that are some of the most difficult challenges students face during their academic careers. We know from decades of research that students who miss out on mastering these concepts tend to struggle with math throughout middle and high school.

We refer to skills like these—those that are critical prerequisites for future learning—as Focus Skills. While all standards are important, these skills are absolutely vital to student success. Emphasizing these skills can accelerate student learning and fill the most critical gaps.

There’s plenty of work to do moving forward, but the challenge is the same as ever: to meet students where they are and show them the way forward.

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