A new examination of how millions of students have fared academically since the coronavirus shut schools down in March shows that students may not have yet suffered as much learning loss as educators and researchers had feared.
New data released this week by NWEA, the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit research group that provides assessments used by thousands of school districts to measure student growth and proficiency, shows that students lost modest ground in math but held steady in reading on assessments administered this fall.
The analysis, based on the scores of 4.4 million students in grades three through eight in 46 states was on the whole encouraging, but it came with concerning caveats.
“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,” Beth Tarasawa, executive vice president of research at NWEA, said in a statement. “This increases the urgency to better connect to students and families who may be weathering the Covid storm very differently.”
Still, the NWEA analysis is the most reliable national data sample to date illustrating the toll the coronavirus has taken on student learning, and is especially valuable now that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called for a one-year delay of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous exam administered by the research arm of the Education Department. That test’s results are what is known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”
The NWEA study includes both in-school and remote learners who took its trademark MAP Growth test this fall. Students’ average math scores were between 5 and 10 percentile points lower than scores recorded for the same grade levels in the fall of 2019, with the most pronounced losses among students in grades three through five. Reading scores barely budged.
The new data bucked the organization’s own “Covid-19 slide” projections from the spring, which estimated that students could return to school having lost 50 percent of a year, or 9 to 20 percentile points, in math, and 30 percent of a year in reading, which would equate to 6 to 8 points.
“Due to the hard work of teachers, we haven’t seen the loss that we could have,” said Chris Minnich, the chief executive officer of NWEA.
Since the pandemic closed schools in March, the majority of students in all grades made learning gains in both subjects, though math gains were lower than in a typical year, researchers found.
But the organization’s examination of scores of the same cohorts of students who took exams in the winter, January through early March, produced concerning findings. While the majority of students were considered “maintainers” in their math score rankings, double the proportion of students, called “sliders,” moved down in the assessments’ rankings compared to a typical year.
Researchers also found they did not have scores for about 25 percent of students who were in schools that tested in both 2019 and 2020, and those students were disproportionately minority students and lower-achieving students, and attended schools serving high concentrations of students living in poverty.
Megan Kuhfeld, senior research scientist at NWEA, called the count a “high, alarming number,” though researchers could not say whether it represented students who unenrolled from school, or simply weren’t tested for a variety of reasons.
“We do worry both about the missing students and whether they’re disengaging,” Ms. Kuhfeld said, “but as well about the findings — that we could be potentially underestimating both the overall impact as well as the inequalities in the impact.”