New report projects significant learning loss due to COVID-19 school closures

With the nation’s unprecedented measures to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, school systems made an abrupt transition from classroom instruction to distance learning. In some cases, districts paused learning altogether while they scrambled to address logistical issues such as the digital divide and preparing teachers to use remote learning approaches and tools. And all of this took place in the context of a public health and economic crisis combined with sustained physical isolation.

Education leaders and families have expressed concern about how these conditions will impact student learning and academic progress, particularly for underserved students. The unprecedented nature of the closures, however, makes it difficult to predict how much impact the extended school closures and new instructional delivery systems will have on student learning. That uncertainty presents challenges for school leaders as they plan for the coming school year.

There is, however, new information that can help educators predict the effects of school closures caused by COVID-19. This month, researchers at the education nonprofit NWEA used MAP Growth Assessment data from more than 5 million U.S. students, along with existing research on seasonal learning loss, to estimate the potential impact of COVID-related closures on student learning in mathematics and reading. Their projections suggest that the impact of COVID-related disruptions to student learning will be substantial, particularly in math.

The NWEA report estimates that the average growth trajectory in reading for students in grades 3-8 would be about 70 percent of what would be expected in a typical school year. For math, however, students’ estimated average learning gains would drop to about 50 percent of what one would expect under normal conditions for grades 3-8. In some grade levels, the researchers estimate the loss of almost a full year of gains in math.

Schools can prepare now to help students catch up later

Following the release of the report, NWEA hosted a webinar on April 22 to discuss the findings and the implications for teachers and education leaders. Moving forward, school systems will need to create plans to support students and close those learning gaps.

This issue is particularly important from an equity perspective. Based on existing studies of seasonal and summer learning loss and data emerging about the way the digital divide has affected the rollout of distance learning this spring, the impact of COVID-19 closures will disproportionately affect underserved  students and widen opportunity and achievement gaps.

One strategy schools can use to identify the wide variations in math comprehension and help meet students’ needs is the use of math diagnostic assessments when school resumes this fall. Unlike summative assessments such as the Smarter Balanced Assessments, diagnostic assessments provide information about the specific concepts with which students need support, often with recommendations about intervention strategies. In addition to the assessments mentioned by NWEA in their webinar, the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project offers free, Common Core-aligned diagnostic math assessments for students grades 6 and up. CSBA has previously addressed math diagnostic assessments in the brief, “Disproportionality in Math Placement”.

During the webinar, Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, suggested that schools develop learning plans for students, including 20-30 minutes of daily engagement with online learning platforms such as Khan Academy. If possible, these could continue throughout the summer to mitigate reductions in traditional instruction time. This may be an option to consider given the likelihood that districts are likely unable to offer traditional summer school options. Other possible supports include starting school a bit earlier to allow schools to provide longer extended learning opportunities for math.

Kimberly Cockrell, chief network officer of the Achievement Network, cautioned webinar participants that weak foundational reading skills often extend beyond the early years, so districts will need a systematic approach to identifying and addressing gaps in learning from this spring.

In all of this planning, however, Superintendent Jesus Jara of Clark County Schools in Nevada highlighted the need for education leaders to plan for maximum flexibility, as specific details about a safe return to classroom instruction remain unknown.


The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement (NWEA)

Webinar: COVID-19 Closures and Learning Loss (NWEA)

Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project