Study: Instructional Mode Played No Significant Role in COVID-19-Related Learning Loss in Indiana Public Schools in 2020-21


MUNCIE, Indiana – Students, teachers, and administrators across the country have faced unprecedented challenges since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But researchers at Ball State University have concluded that various modes of instruction—whether in-person, virtual, or hybrid—did not play a significant role in learning loss among students in Indiana public schools during the 2020-21 school year.

What Contributed to COVID Learning Loss in Indiana’s Schools?,” a recently published study from Ball State’s  Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), utilized Indiana Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network (ILEARN) test scores from Spring 2019 to Spring 2021 as a measure of learning for Indiana public K-12 schools.

Testing the effects of several different contributing factors—including school size, demographics, type of school, instructional modes, and more—CBER researchers Drs. Michael Hicks and Dagney Faulk concluded that the level of poverty in a school, as measured by the share of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, was the single strongest correlate of COVID-19-related learning loss during the 2020-21 school year.

“This is wholly unsurprising as it reflects the single most repeated finding in education research regarding test scores and risks to learning loss,” Drs. Hicks and Faulk wrote in the study’s executive summary.

Dr. Hicks, CBER’s director and the George & Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business, credits schools across the state for their ability to balance maintaining a quality educational environment while also considering the overall health of their students, teachers, administrators, and staff.

“Schools faced a tough balancing act in making trade-offs about instructional style. Closing schools risked further learning loss, while opening schools risked spread of the disease and many individual days of quarantine or isolation,” Dr. Hicks said. “The absence of any correlation between the type and share of instruction schools offered over the year is very strong evidence that on average, Hoosier schools were effectively balancing the needs of learning and disease prevention.”

For Dr. Faulk, CBER director of research and professor, the study’s findings are important because they provide relevant feedback to Indiana school systems tasked with making key decisions about instructional modes now at the start of the Spring 2022 semester, with COVID-19-related hospitalization rates continuing to soar across the state and the country.

“Our findings suggest that the balancing protocols used in the 2020-2021 school year are likely optimal, in the sense that some other mix of instructional modes would not have resulted in lower learning losses,” she wrote.

Other key findings from the study:

• The researchers found a negative relationship between test scores and initial levels of student pass rates in 2019. Schools that did better in 2019 experienced greater learning loss by 2021. “Schools that entered the pandemic with better test scores saw higher learning losses than those that were lower,” Dr. Faulk said. “We think this is because COVID had the biggest impact on the most vulnerable students who benefitted from more targeted instruction that was interrupted by COVID.”

• The study also found several factors that do not explain school-level variation in learning loss. There was no robust evidence that racial or ethnic contribution of schools, types or sizes of schools, or the share of English Language Learners or Special Education students play a role in aggregate learning loss.

Since its inception in 1970, Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research has been a trusted source for high-quality, nonpartisan, data-focused research, analysis, and visualization. For more on this study, contact Dr. Hicks at  mhicks@bsu.edu and Dr. Faulk at  dgfaulk@bsu.edu.

About Ball State

Founded in 1918 and located in Muncie, Ball State University is one of Indiana’s premier universities and an economic driver for the state. Ball State’s 21,600 students come from all over Indiana, the nation, and the world. The 790-acre campus is large enough to accommodate first-rate facilities and 19 NCAA Division I sports, but our welcoming and inclusive campus is small enough to ensure the friendliness, personal attention, and access that are the hallmarks of the University. Destination 2040: Our Flight Path establishes Ball State’s ambitious goals for our second century. We Fly!

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