Post-pandemic academic achievement is showing encouraging signs of improvement, although not evenly across school years, according to NWEA, a nonprofit, research and educational services organization serving K-12 students.
The new research findings are based on fall 2022 assessment data from nearly 7 million US students in grades 3-8.
The new report is part of NWEA’s ongoing research effort to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted student achievement in reading and math.
Key findings include:
- Students lost less ground during summer 2022 compared to pre-pandemic trends (“summer slide” wasn’t as steep).
- Academic rebounding in reading and math continued in fall 2022; however, rebounding is not even across school years and summers, especially in reading.
- The youngest students in the sample (current 3rd graders who were kindergarteners when the pandemic began) have the largest reading declines and showed the least rebounding.
- Even with continued rebounding, student achievement remains lower than a typical year and full recovery is likely still several years away.
“We can now confidently say that Spring 2021 is when we bottomed out. That was the point where the gaps between test scores during the pandemic relative to historical trends were at their widest,” said Dr. Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA and co-author of the new report along with Dr. Megan Kuhfeld. “Since that time, we’ve seen those gaps start to shrink, which is good news and indicates we’re on the path to recovery. But there is still a long road ahead of us and achievement levels continue to be below pre-pandemic norms.”
Fall data is helpful to educators as a checkpoint to realign instructional plans and for district leaders to understand where more intervention efforts may be needed and for which students.
“This is a great moment for school leaders to look for opportunities to give classroom teachers the flexibility they need to serve students with varying degrees of proficiency, like flexible schedules and adding staff that can support dynamic student grouping,” said Dr. Chase Nordengren, principal research lead for Effective Instructional Strategies at NWEA. “This will be no easy task as school leaders continue to juggle challenges like staffing shortages and balancing academic recovery with student mental health. They deserve our support and understanding as they focus their efforts on meeting the needs of students who need it the most.”
One concerning finding is the impact on reading levels of third graders, who were kindergarteners at the onset of the pandemic and have seen the largest impact in reading and the least improvement.
“Teaching kids to read with good accuracy in English takes several years. We have a complex language where one letter pattern can stand for different sounds, such as COW and SNOW, and where similar sounds can be spelled different ways, such as WAIT and WEIGHT. It should not be surprising that when good systematic teaching about this complex code was challenged for a year or more, our current third graders turn out to be struggling,” said Dr. Cindy Jiban, principal academic lead, focusing on early learning at NWEA. “First, we need to ensure that we are offering strong, evidence-based code instruction beyond the grades where those skills used to be actively taught. Phonics and fluency instruction need to extend, to meet students’ needs regardless of grade. Second, we need to acknowledge and allow for the time it takes students to move toward fluent reading of a complex language, even when our instruction is excellent.”
Mathematics also continues to be a focus, as throughout the pandemic, the subject saw greater declines.
“I’m heartened to see mathematics rebounding given how far behind students fell and it speaks volumes of our educators as they continue to find ways to increase time with mathematics in school,” said Dr. Tammy Baumann, VP of Academic Services focused on mathematics at NWEA. “But families are in a unique position to offer incredible help. It is imperative that students develop a positive math identity at a young age. Adults at home can help by referring to children as young mathematicians and engaging them in intentional opportunities where they have positive experiences with mathematics.”
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