What is learning loss?
While we gained more time at home with family, “loss” is one word that aptly characterizes the COVID-19 pandemic: loss of life, health, jobs, travel opportunities, learning. “Learning loss” has, in fact, become a recognizable phenomenon within education. It refers to students stagnating or even regressing in their schooling due to uncontrollable circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Students across the country are falling behind at precipitous rates. Research suggests that since March students have lost anywhere between a couple of months and years of learning. For example, some 7th graders in spring 2020 who were on pace to begin their 8th grade education in fall 2020 are performing on a 6th-grade level in spring 2021. The teenage dropout rate is also steadily increasing.
The students who have suffered most are society’s most vulnerable—economically disadvantaged students who were struggling before the pandemic, many of whom are black and Hispanic children. As these students fall further behind, their future prospects shrink. Learning loss also affects English language learners and students with IEPs disproportionately, as well.
The situation may look bleak, but there is hope. Educators, scholars, and activists around the country have already begun implementing solutions to mitigate and reverse the damage. We will explore these solutions later, but let’s first get a clearer picture of learning loss by looking at the data behind it.
By the numbers: A close look at learning loss data in the COVID-19 era
In March, most schools were forced to move classes online for the remainder of the semester. When school commenced in the fall, whether in person or online, it became clear just how significantly distance learning had impacted students.
To estimate how much learning had been lost, researchers compared test scores from fall 2020 to those from the past three years. According to one study conducted by the Curriculum Associates i-Ready Platform, fall 2020 reading and math test scores in grades K-8 were significantly lower than test scores from previous years. For example, before the pandemic, 19 percent of students entered the second grade with a kindergarten reading level, but in fall 2020 the number was 25 percent. The numbers are even lower for math. Historically, 20 percent of all students entering second grade performed at a kindergarten level or lower in math. In fall 2020, it was 30 percent.
These numbers reflect averages among students from all backgrounds. Now, let’s look at learning loss among various student populations. McKinsey & Company found that Black and Hispanic students learned only 59 percent of the math and 77 percent of reading that they normally would. Their white peers, however, learned 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that they usually learn. That’s a difference of eight and ten percentage points. When we consider the fact that this downward turn correlates directly with distance learning, we must confront another sobering statistic: Urban schools (whose student bodies are predominantly Black and Hispanic) were much more likely to conduct school online in fall 2020 than their rural and suburban counterparts.
One McKinsey report estimates that 60 percent of K-12 students began the 2020-21 school year online, with 20 percent doing blended learning (a combination of virtual and in-person instruction) and another 20 percent occupying the classroom full time. Breaking down the numbers by demographics reveals troubling disparities: 69 percent of Black students and 71 percent of Hispanic students were fully remote, whereas only 40 percent of white students were fully remote. If test results from fall 2020 are any indication of standard academic growth during distance learning, we can expect the achievement gap between students of color and white students to grow exponentially.
Learning loss comes with economic costs. A substandard education limits opportunities, perpetuating generational poverty. Greater degrees of learning loss among students of color also entail grave economic consequences for the whole of society. The achievement gap between students of color and white students may have cost the US $310 to $525 billion annually over the past decade alone. That is approximately two to four percent of the country’s annual GDP. That students of color are more likely to live in poverty and receive an inadequate education should be enough to galvanize us all to action. But if that is not enough, consider the fact that these inequities affect the entire country.
Going deeper into the data
Some recent studies may suggest a more optimistic picture than the one we’ve presented above. In fall 2020, NWEA, a nonprofit organization that researches academic trends in K-12 education, analyzed test scores from a sample of 4.4 million elementary and middle school students. According to this report, students have fallen slightly behind in math, but overall are performing on grade level. This means that students continued progressing in math and reading, albeit slightly more slowly, when schools went online in spring 2020.
The NWEA report comes with a startling caveat, however: Approximately one-quarter of students were missing from the data. The report compared fall 2020 benchmark results to fall 2019 benchmark results. In 2019, there were 5.2 million students from the same sample who took the benchmark exams. In 2020, however, 800,000 students did not take the exam. Beth Tarasawa, head of research at NWEA, suggests that the missing students are “more likely to be black and brown, more likely to be from high-poverty schools, and more likely to have lower performance in the first place.”
The reasons why students have disappeared from the virtual or physical classroom vary. As discussed earlier, urban schools with higher populations of minority students are less likely to meet in person than rural and suburban ones. Some students still do not have computers or internet access. Others have disengaged or dropped out. If the NWEA numbers indicate a national trend, then a quarter of students are not simply underperforming, they’re giving up entirely. We know that, after missing more than 10 days of school, students are 36 percent more likely to quit school altogether. This pattern is especially noticeable during natural disasters that displace students from their homes, such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria. It is very probable that we will see drop-out rates among minority students soar as the pandemic continues. But without the means to attend class, what choice do they have?
Finding a way forward
These numbers cast a long shadow over the future of education, but private and public organizations have already launched a number of promising programs in response to learning loss. Highly structured, targeted learning sessions in the evenings, on weekends, and during the summer will be needed to regain lost ground. It is perhaps more important than ever that we understand what makes an after-hours program successful.
Almost all successful programs share certain qualities. They make academic content culturally relevant, reinforce core learning, and keep learning groups between eight to twelve students. “High dosage” learning environments (one-on-one tutoring) are particularly effective. Tutors work with two students at a time for 50 minutes, so that one student completes a short assignment while the other receives guidance and instruction from the tutor. This model shows promising results, especially in math. In this format, students can cover one to two additional years of math within a year. High dosage tutoring is also economical. Teachers must possess a certification to instruct 25 students at a time, but schools can hire recently graduated paraprofessionals to teach small groups. These new college graduates gain valuable teaching experience, and students benefit from their expertise and focused attention.
One of the challenges of teaching in underserved communities is introducing new content to students performing below grade level. Conventional wisdom demands re-teaching of material from previous grades, but research suggests that these well-meaning reviews actually hurt students in the long run. One study by the New Teacher Project found that re-teaching sets low expectations that students accept. Instead, teachers can supplement their learning by providing just-in-time scaffolding without devoting entire class periods to re-teaching content. Districts can keep student engagement on grade level by providing teachers professional development through webinars and other formats.
Some teachers may believe that depriving struggling students of remediation is a cruel disservice. Webinars and other forms of professional development will help teachers see the dangers of this practice. In general, school districts will need to invest more in the professional development of their teachers. Consistent training exposes teachers to current research and best practices. Professional development will become increasingly important as we learn more about how the pandemic has affected students.
All of us—teachers, administrators, researchers—are still trying to understand the impact of the pandemic on education. We will probably not fully understand it until the pandemic is many years behind us. One thing is clear: There is much work to be done, particularly in communities that were already disadvantaged. Learning loss is not just a number on a research report: It is a reality that threatens the future of our children and the well-being of our nation. More than ever, it is time for us to roll up our sleeves and work together: only together will we develop effective and equitable solutions.
Cory Turner. New report offers clearest picture yet of pandemic impact on student learning. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/12/01/938048852/some-good-news-student-reading-gains-are-steady-while-math-slows-down
Emma Dorn, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg. COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-learning-loss-disparities-grow-and-students-need-help#
Emma Dorn, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg. COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime
Megan Kuhfeld, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Karyn Lewis. Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth. https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/11/Collaborative-brief-Learning-during-COVID-19.NOV2020.pdf