New brief finds learning loss more acute among specific student subgroups

A Jan. 25 brief from Policy Analysis for California Education finds that there has been significant learning loss in both English language arts and mathematics, with students in earlier grades most affected. Additionally, low-income students and English learners are among those falling further behind.

As local educational agencies craft school reopening plans or commit to distance learning for the foreseeable future, the report calls for a concerted effort to target these student groups in any intervention efforts.

“The pandemic and its related disruptions to schooling in California have disproportionately affected low-income students and ELLs,” researchers wrote. “Average learning loss estimates mask the reality that some students in California are suffering much more during this time than are others. Without aggressive and bold actions, these students may never catch up; any funding or support designed to mitigate learning loss must be targeted specifically to the students who need it most.”

The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated preexisting educational inequities throughout California. Most schools in the state have been physically closed since last spring, and while most students have faced challenges related to distance learning, some groups have been “doubly disadvantaged,” according to authors of the brief.

Low-income and rural students may not have reliable access to devices or WiFi, making it difficult to access online instruction, for example. Others do not have a quiet place at home to learn, or struggle with food or housing insecurity or with limited adult support. Additionally, distance learning is simply more difficult to implement for students with disabilities, English learners and children in the earlier grades.

The latest research from PACE focuses on student learning in grades four through 10 in 18 school districts that are part of the CORE Data Collaborative. The analysis included six districts that administer the MAP assessment and 12 that administer the STAR assessment.

Among the findings:

  • Students in fifth grade saw the largest dip in both ELA and math on the MAP assessment.
  • While fourth and fifth graders saw nearly the same decrease on the STAR assessment in ELA, children in sixth grade saw the largest decline on the STAR math assessments.
  • In both sixth and seventh grade, socioeconomically disadvantaged students who took the MAP assessment saw drastic drops, while their more affluent peers actually made small gains.
  • Among children in grade 10, gains were made among both low-income youth and their peers on both the math and ELA MAP assessments.
  • Low-income youth who took the ELA STAR assessment in grade six, on the other hand, saw a sharp decline compared to their peers, who saw a smaller decline.
  • English learners across all grades had some of the deepest dips on both the MAP and STAR assessments in English language arts.
  • Math scores on both exams also demonstrated losses among English learners, though children in grades nine and 10 showed growth in math on the MAP assessment.

Once campuses are able to safely reopen, authors note that analyzing whether and how student learning in ELA and math has been affected will be the first step in determining what students have experienced during the pandemic and how schools will need to be reorganized to meet their needs.

“The pandemic has introduced a great deal of hardship into many students’ lives, and leaders at the school, district and state levels will need tools to assess students’ social-emotional well-being, including physical and mental health needs, social systems of support, and general readiness to learn,” researchers concluded. “Ultimately, addressing students’ learning loss will require a student-centered approach that puts family and student relationships first, and a systemic transformation in how schools address the overlapping learning, behavioral and emotional needs that support effective learning and teaching.”