- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Elementary and middle school students are falling behind in math skills this year compared to last year, highlighting the challenges of learning during the coronavirus pandemic, an assessment by an education research nonprofit found.

Average math scores were lower by 5 and 10 percentile points for students this year compared to last year, according to an NWEA analysis of 4.4 million U.S. students in grades 3-8.

Researchers used MAP Growth assessments, which track the growth of students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The assessments this year measured how students have performed compared to a typical school year.

Although the assessments showed a learning lag in math, researchers found that elementary and middle school students appear to be progressing normally in reading. While learning gains were made in reading and math since the pandemic forced schools to shift online, gains in math were lower on average this fall than in previous years.

“Preliminary fall data suggests that, on average, students are faring better than we had feared with continued academic progress in reading and minor setbacks in math due to COVID-19 related school disruptions,” said NWEA researcher Beth Tarasawa.

“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. This increases the urgency to better connect to students and families who may be weathering the COVID storm very differently,” she said.

Low-income and minority children make up about 1 in 4 students who tested in 2019 but were missing from 2020 testing. Since marginalized student groups were more likely to be missing from its data, the impacts COVID-19 has had on learning may be underestimated, NWEA researchers said.

Researchers compared grade-level performance for the 2019 and 2020 tests and studied student growth over time, looking at how students did on assessments given shortly before schools closed and those given this fall.

Although the findings confirm that the pandemic may be contributing to learning lags, these setbacks are not as major as projections made in spring that were based in part on typical “summer slide” learning losses, The Associated Press reported.

“It’s too early to tell at this point what could be the long term impacts of COVID-19 school disruptions on both students and educators. We’re just scratching the surface of understanding what these impacts may be in the long run,” NWEA spokeswoman Simona Beattie said in an email.

A June report by the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. estimated that if in-class instruction doesn’t resume until January, students could lose three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction, seven to 11 months with lower quality online learning, and 12 to 14 months if they do not receive any instruction at all.

Learning losses will probably be greatest among low-income Black and Hispanic students, who are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning, the report says.

A November analysis by educational software firm Renaissance Learning found that students lagged in math while staying relatively on track in reading. By studying 5.3 million standardized tests, the company found that math achievement on average dropped by 7 percentile points and by 1 percentile point for reading, compared to a normal school year.

To make up for the losses, students in grades 4—7 will need on average four to seven weeks to catch up in reading, while grades 1—3 and 8 were already on track, the report says. Students in grades 5 and 6 were more than 12 weeks behind beginning-of-year expectations in math, and students in grades 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 would need four to 11 weeks to catch up.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner last month highlighted the struggles with online learning, noting attendance is lower than what is typically seen when students are in classrooms and that an increasing number of middle and high school students are receiving D’s and F’s compared to last year.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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