Minnesota students lost a semester’s worth of learning in reading and nearly a full year in math during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new analysis of test scores.
The study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities provides the most comprehensive look yet at how much schoolchildren in 29 states have fallen behind academically.
Harvard economist Thomas Kane hopes that presenting the data in terms of learning years lost will create a new sense of urgency among parents and school district leaders to take aggressive steps toward recovery. School districts have two years left to spend federal relief grants, and Kane said they aren’t doing enough.
“We’re not going to make up for half a year of learning with a few extra days of instruction or providing tutors to 5-10 percent of kids,” he said.
The Education Recovery Scorecard project, which includes a map showing how many years of learning the average student in each school district has lost since 2019, examined scores on both state-specific tests like Minnesota’s MCA and the national NAEP exams.
Nationwide, the average student lost more than half a school year of learning in math and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading — with some district averages slipping by more than double those amounts, or worse.
Among Minnesota school districts, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale saw the greatest drop in scores between 2019 and 2022, falling 0.93 years in reading and 1.45 years in math.
St. Paul lost 0.48 years in reading and a full year in math. Of the 179 Minnesota school districts in the study, St. Paul ranked ahead of only Columbia Heights and Cass Lake-Bena in both subjects on this year’s tests.
Minnesota’s decline in math was especially stark. The average student was nearly a full year – 0.98 grade levels – ahead of expectations in math in 2019. But by 2022, the state was merely on grade level. Of the 29 states studied, only Delaware and Maryland saw greater losses in math than Minnesota’s 0.97 grade levels.
In reading, the average Minnesota student was 0.33 grade levels ahead in 2019 but 0.18 behind in 2022.
The researchers said it was unsurprising to see the pandemic disruptions have a greater impact on math than reading. That’s because parents kept reading to their kids while schools were closed but many – especially low-income parents – were unable to help in math.
More than school closures
The pandemic devastated poor children’s well-being, not just by closing their schools, but also by taking away their parents’ jobs, sickening their families and teachers, and adding chaos and fear to their daily lives.
Online learning played a major role, but students lost significant ground even where they returned quickly to schoolhouses.
“I was really surprised” there weren’t greater differences in performance according to time spent in remote learning, Kane said, adding that more research is coming on potential contributing factors like broadband Internet access, COVID-19 death rates and the kind of jobs parents worked. “Hopefully, we’ll learn more, but at this case we can say it wasn’t just remote instruction that was driving losses.”
Some educators have objected to the very idea of measuring learning loss after a crisis that has killed more than 1 million Americans. Reading and math scores don’t tell the entire story about what’s happening with a child, but they’re one of the only aspects of children’s development reliably measured nationwide.
“Test scores aren’t the only thing, or the most important thing,” Stanford education professor Sean Reardon said. “But they serve as an indicator for how kids are doing.”
And kids aren’t doing well, especially those who were at highest risk before the pandemic. The data show many children need significant intervention, and advocates and researchers say the U.S. isn’t doing enough.
“To address unfinished learning, we implore district leaders to invest in evidence-based strategies, including increased access to strong, diverse teachers, targeted intensive tutoring, expanded learning time, and strengthening socioemotional supports and relationships weakened during the pandemic,” said John B. King, president of The Education Trust and former U.S. secretary of education.
Now, the onus is on America’s adults to work toward kids’ recovery. For the federal government and individual states, advocates hope the recent releases of test data could inspire more urgency to direct funding to the students who suffered the largest setbacks, whether it’s academic or other support.
School systems are still spending the nearly $190 billion in federal relief money allocated for recovery, a sum experts have said fails to address the extent of learning loss in schools. Nearly 70% of students live in districts where federal relief money is likely inadequate to address the magnitude of their learning loss, according to Kane and Reardon’s analysis.
The implications for kids’ futures are alarming: Lower test scores are predictors of lower wages, plus higher rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy, Kane said.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.