Although schools focused on learning recovery during the 2021-22 school year, new research suggests students didn’t fully regain ground lost during the pandemic in reading and math achievement. The largest differences in learning outcomes came in the formative years, the early elementary and middle school years when students are building and solidifying foundational reading and math skills.
Only 67% of 3rd-grade students assessed on reading performed on grade level in spring 2022, which was only a tiny increase from 66% in spring 2021 and still below the historical rate of 72%. The study, conducted by Curriculum Associates, looked at nearly 2 million students in grades 1-8 who took the i-Ready online assessment.
A lower percentage of students were at grade level in math when compared to pre-pandemic achievement, particularly in grades 3-5. In 3rd grade, for example, just 54% performed on grade level compared to 65% prior to the pandemic.
In a separate report, Curriculum Associates identified 301 schools nationwide where students are exceeding learning expectations and identified how school leaders there are nudging their students toward recovery.
“The question is no longer if or how the pandemic affected student learning, it is if and how it can recover," said Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates, in a statement. The company provides instructional strategies and created the i-Ready assessment used in many districts.
The findings from Curriculum Associates come less than two weeks after National Assessment of Education Progress long-term trends for 9-year-old students showed first-time declines in math and the most significant decline in reading since the 1980s. Those trends showed reading scores for 9-year-olds, who are mostly 3rd- and 4th-graders, declined by 5 points compared to pre-pandemic levels. Math declined by 7 points.
Additional research released Wednesday shows 2021 test score losses when compared to pre-pandemic levels were largest in the districts with the least access to in-person learning, on average. This disparity continues in 2022.
“Districts that had more remote learning during the pandemic have a much longer way to go and investments in recovery are urgently needed to address learning loss and accelerate student outcomes,” said Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University, who studied the state assessment data.
While the costs of the pandemic continue, Oster said, there are signs of recovery in some states as in-person instruction increases.
Researchers from Curriculum Associates spoke to leaders serving low-income schools and schools serving mostly students of color where students are exceeding expectations and identified six promising school leadership practices that encourage student growth:
- Cultivating educator mindsets that support student success. This is where educators believe all students, regardless of background or circumstances, can achieve at high levels. Educators particularly have high expectations of students with substantial unfinished learning.
- A culture of data. District and school leaders established clear expectations for teachers and support staff to use data to drive student improvement, and provided professional development on data. Leaders also incorporated regular routines for monitoring, evaluating and quickly responding to student data.
- Prioritizing the needs of the whole child. District and school leaders carefully selected curriculum products to support students’ social and emotional health and had in place a multi-tiered system of supports.
- Creating an engaging and inspiring school environment. School leaders expected teachers to cultivate strong relationships with students, which they said leads to greater motivation for students. Both teachers and school leaders also incentivized students to increase engagement and motivation. Incentives included recognition like certificates and shoutouts, prizes like gift cards, and fun activities.
- Providing resources and supports that enhance teacher practice. District and school leaders provided resources meant to increase content knowledge, improve instructional practices and help interpret data.
- Engaging families for a strong school and home connection. District and school leaders were committed to involving families in students' learning. In some schools, parents were encouraged to participate in evening activities at school, like math and literacy nights, where parents saw the curriculum their children were learning. Nonetheless, academic nights were often not as popular among parents as school sports, plays and other forms of school-based entertainment.
This story has been updated to include additional information.