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Learning during COVID-19: Initial research findings

NWEA’s Megan Kuhfeld, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, Karyn Lewis, and Beth Tarasawa share some key findings and actionable takeaways from recent research based on a sample of more than 8,000 schools across the nation.

Using data from nearly 4.4 million students in grades 3–8 who took MAP® Growth™ in fall 2020, NWEA examined the following research questions:

  • How did students perform this fall relative to a typical school year (specifically, fall 2019)?
  • How has student growth changed since schools physically closed in March 2020?

Key findings

  • In fall of 2020, students in grades 3–8 performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in fall 2019, but about 5–10 percentile points lower in math.
  • Most students showed growth in both reading and math achievement since the onset of COVID-19 disruptions, but growth in math was lower than in a typical year.
  • Some differences by racial/ethnic groups are emerging in the fall 2020 data, but it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these initial results

1 in 4 Kids Was Missing from Fall Exams – The 74 Million

While the researchers say findings led them to conclude they likely overestimated how much COVID slide students would experience during coronavirus-related school closures, they caution that with such a large number of vulnerable children absent, the research is incomplete. In addition, an unknown number of students took the tests remotely, which may also affect the results.

“Almost one in four are not showing up, and we don’t know why,” said Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist with NWEA. In addition to being disproportionately white, students who did take the fall 2020 tests were more likely to be from affluent schools. Low-income students, children of color and pupils who attend schools with high concentrations of poverty were underrepresented.

NWEA recommendations and considerations

NWEA findings show that the impacts of COVID-19 disruptions on student achievement were not the blanket declines many expected, but were instead uneven across subjects and grade levels. 

  • There is a critical need for clear data to understand where students have fallen behind and to guide where additional resources and supports are needed.
  • School districts and states should collect and transparently report data on students’ opportunity to learn (for example, attendance and completion of assignments) and academic achievement, and they should measure and report on their social and emotional well-being to inform our understanding of students’ unmet needs.
  • Educators and policymakers should plan to provide ample support to students who have fallen behind and, when in doubt, err on the side of more service and outreach.
  • We should promote equitable access to high-quality math teaching and learning.
  • The safe return to all classrooms and the additional educational and child welfare interventions needed for recovery all require additional funds.

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