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Data show that students are now more academically different than their pre-pandemic peers--and an alarming learning gap has emerged. achievement gap

Research points to a widening academic divide


Data show that students are now more academically different than their pre-pandemic peers

Math and reading scores demonstrate more variability post-COVID, primarily due to a larger gap between low and high academic achievers, according to NWEA, a nonprofit research and educational services organization serving K-12 students.

NWEA has released new research findings that examine to what degree students’ reading and math test scores have become more variable during the pandemic, and how achievement gains across the pandemic compare to pre-pandemic trends for students who were low- or high-achieving before the pandemic started.

The research used test scores from more than 8 million US students in grades 3 – 8 across 24,000 public schools who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in reading and math comparing results from students who tested during COVID-interrupted school years (2019-20 through 2021-22) and students who tested prior to the onset of the pandemic (between 2016-17 and 2018-19).

Key findings are:

  • Math and reading test scores are more variable in spring 2022 than spring 2019, indicating that students – based on their current achievement levels – are more different from one another now than before the pandemic.
  • Increased variability is primarily driven by a widened distance between low and high achievers given students with lower achievement experienced larger initial impacts at the onset of the pandemic and less improvement during 2021-22.

“There’s no question that the pandemic’s disruptions to learning were profound, but the level and depth of that impact was not equal across all students,” said Dr. Karyn Lewis, one of the authors of the new study. “As we urgently work toward recovery, continuing to understand which students were harmed the most and the magnitude of their unmet needs will keep the focus on them as a priority to ensure appropriate interventions are provided.”

Related:
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Academic diversity in student achievement is not a new concept to educators who each fall prepare instructional plans that must meet a range of academic skills and knowledge of their incoming students. For example, a typical fifth-grade pre-pandemic classroom included studentswho, on average, ranged up to seven grade levels (above and below). During the pandemic, this variability has expanded.

“The continued impact of the pandemic requires focus, new strategies, creative solutions, and collaboration between educators and families,” said Dr. Chase Nordengren, principal research lead for Effective Instructional Strategies at NWEA. “Purchasing a new tutoring or curricular solution isn’t enough; leaders must make deep investments in teachers that enhance their knowledge and skills, and create the sustained conditions that make classrooms equitable places to learn.”

To address increased variability, NWEA’s professional learning experts recommend:

  • Balancing between on-grade and off-grade learning to maximize growth. Teachers will need to have deep knowledge of their own grade’s academic standards as well as those one-to-two grade levels above and below with the goal of ensuring all students have access to grade-level materials. 
  • Using real-time checks (formative assessment practices) to understand whether and how students have mastered academic content and make quick adjustments to ensure all students can reach their highest potential.
  • Supporting teachers by reinforcing their expertise and skills with opportunities for professional growth that highlight the essential role they play in students’ lives.

“This latest report from NWEA is not surprising to our District 81 educators who have always used data to differentiate and guide instruction during flexible group times,” said Dr. Kimberly Boryszewski, Superintendent of Schools at Schiller Park School District 81 in Illinois. “Post pandemic, this is more important than ever. Learning gaps across grade levels have created conditions in schools that demand educators meet students at their individual instructional level to target their personal academic needs. SD81 has expanded flexible group time throughout the entire school day and across all content areas to work towards closing the significant achievement gaps created by the pandemic.”

The new research report is authored by Drs. Karyn Lewis, Megan Kuhfeld, Meredith Langi, Scott Peters, and Erin Fahle.

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