Students have begun to narrow pandemic-era learning gaps, but the delays in learning are significant and in many cases, the recorded progress is disproportionate, several data points from the 2021-22 school year show.
State assessment data from Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, for example, reveal hopeful signs of academic rebounding when comparing the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. Yet student progress overall is still below 2018-19 achievement levels, according to announcements by those states.
Separately, a Center on Reinventing Public Education analysis of 23 independent studies conducted since July 2021 shows learning delays are seen at all grade levels. The CRPE analysis also reveals students who spent more time absent or in remote learning had greater learning delays compared to students with more in-person instruction.
The new data on students' academic status highlights the need for schools to stay focused on learning recovery efforts, said student achievement experts.
"This is not the time to stop asking questions about who's losing and under what circumstances. It's time to invest in getting pretty good representative data and drilling down on it," said Paul Hill, founder of CRPE and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.
How and where students learn makes a difference
A key conclusion of the CRPE analysis, Hill said, is that in-person learning makes a positive difference in academic outcomes.
For example, the CRPE analysis, which builds upon reviews conducted in 2021, found math test score passing rates dropped 14.2% on average in the 2020-21 school year. Districts that had mostly remote learning saw another 10 percentage point drop. One study reviewed by CRPE researchers showed that in Ohio, each additional week of remote learning had "measurable costs" in student test scores in certain subjects and grade levels.
Where students went to school mattered as well. CRPE's review of the studies found Black students who attended racially mixed schools lost the fewest days’ worth of instruction, while Black students who attended racially isolated schools generally lost the most days of instruction.
"The kids that had the greatest losses are also the ones from schools opened the least and were disrupted the most this last year," Hill said.
CRPE's analysis is part of a series of papers focusing on the academic and mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the K-12 educational system. Hill said there's a lot to learn from the past, but future years will be pivotal to recovery efforts, too.
"Urgently tracking individual kids' progress and identifying unmet needs" will be vital, as will supporting in-person instruction, Hill said.
What individual states are seeing
At the state level, assessment data shows some bright spots. In Mississippi, for instance, the percentage of students scoring at proficient or advanced in math was 47.3% in 2021-22, up from 35.1% in 2020-21 and just under the 2018-19 result of 47.4%, according to a summary from the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program.
Due to the emergency closure of schools in spring 2020 during the emergence of COVID-19, assessment results for the 2019-20 school year are not available for some locations across the nation.
Mississippi students made strong progress on English language arts assessments as well. In 2021-22, 42.2% of students scored proficient or higher. That's up from 34.9% in 2020-21 and 41.6% in 2018-19.
Nearby, in Louisiana, students in grades 3-8 taking the state's LEAP assessments improved mastery rates by 3 percentage points in both math and English language arts last school year compared to the year before. Overall, 80% of school districts improved their mastery rates over the 2020-21 school year.
In Virginia, all student subgroups — including Black students, economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities — had stronger math and reading assessment passing rates in 2021-22 compared to 2020-21, according to results on the Standards of Learning and other assessments. But for all student subgroups, passing rates for 2021-22 fell below 2018-19 results. For example, the percentage of English learners passing the math assessment hit 59% in 2018-19 and only 21% in 2020-21, and then 36% in 2021-22.
Passing rates for Virginia math assessments
“The bottom line is that in-person instruction matters. When we compare the 2021-2022 data with achievement in 2020-2021 — when the majority of our students were learning remotely or on hybrid schedules — we can see the difference our teachers made once they were reunited with their students in their classrooms,” said Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow in a statement.
While educators and education advocates say there's a lot to do to raise students above pre-pandemic levels, many are pausing to celebrate these early glimpses of academic rebounds in the last school year — and to credit those working to help students achieve.
"Students are responding to teachers who believe they can learn at high levels and providing them with a renewed sense of belonging and safety with just enough support," said Susan Pimentel, the lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy and founding partner of the nonprofits StandardsWork and Student Achievement Partners, in an email.
"Teachers should continue to radically prioritize learning on what matters most — what sparks joy and a sense of accomplishment in children — and strip away the rest," Pimentel said.