Initial findings on COVID learning loss indicate unfinished learning in math despite slightly encouraging reading gains

3 recommendations from research on COVID learning loss

Initial findings on COVID learning loss indicate unfinished learning in math despite slightly encouraging reading gains

While students have made some learning gains in reading and math since the beginning of COVID, average math gains were lower on average in fall 2020 than prior years–meaning more students are falling behind relative to their prior standing and raising concerns about COVID learning loss, according to new research from NWEA, a nonprofit assessment provider.

Average scores for math were between 5 and 10 percentile points lower for students this year as compared to same-grade students last year.

The research, Learning During COVID-19: Initial Findings on Students’ Reading and Math Achievement and Growth, is a follow-up to NWEA’s April 2020 analysis predicting concerning learning loss as a result of the pandemic.

Related content: Study shows major COVID learning loss potential in grades K-2

This new research analyzed data from more than 4 million U.S. students in grades 3-8 who took MAP Growth assessments in fall 2020 to determine how students performed this fall relative to a typical school year. It also analyzed how much students have grown academically since schools physically closed in March 2020 and how fall 2020 test scores compared to the projections made by NWEA in April 2020.

“Preliminary fall data suggests that, on average, students are faring better than we had feared with continued academic progress in reading and minor setbacks in math due to COVID-19 related school disruptions,” said Beth Tarasawa, EVP of Research at NWEA. “While there’s some good news here, we want to stress that not all students are represented in the data, especially from our most marginalized communities. This increases the urgency to better connect to students and families who may be weathering the COVID storm very differently.”

The pandemic has impacted academic progress particularly hard for certain demographic groups, and while some differences by racial and ethnic groups are emerging from this latest data, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, partly because student groups especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s impacts were more likely to be missing from NWEA’s data.

Short- and long-term impacts of COVID, both academic and non-academic, remain to be seen and fully understood, but NWEA has worked with collaborators to develop a research program that informs policies and practices moving forward.

1. Continue federal and state funding to districts impacted by the pandemic. The safe return to classrooms and the additional educational and child welfare interventions needed for recovery all require additional funds. Federal and state government leaders must continue to provide funding as the pandemic will have lingering impacts on children and school systems.

2. Transparency in data reporting to effectively target resources to those most in need. Educational leaders and states are encouraged to collect and transparently report data on students’ opportunity to learn, academic achievement, and social and emotional well-being to inform understanding of students’ unmet needs.

3. Equitable access to high-quality math teaching and learning. NWEA’s math expert, Ted Coe, suggests a continued focus on meeting students where they are in their learning, not where they normally would be. He encourages educators to focus on packing, rather than unpacking, standards–that is, figure out how students are thinking about the math rather than how well they do math procedures. Powerful student thinking will be much longer-lasting and flexibly adapted even though the results are less immediate and less evident.

“While our research highlights concerns, especially for math, the results show signs of optimism that is a reflection of a strong determination to serve our students,” said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA. “Since schools initially closed in March, we’ve seen educators and families step up and pull together in new collaborations to meet the challenge of instruction during COVID. but even through these diligent efforts, our data shows that school isn’t working for all students, so we must continue to provide support while also monitoring closely the multiple indicators that inform how students are weathering this pandemic.


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Laura Ascione
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