Government resources are drying up, vaccine mandates and COVID-19 protocols are being lifted, and students and educators say they feel they’re being left behind.
This three-part series takes a closer look at how teachers, students, and parents are coping with fear and uncertainty as government priorities shift.
Last fall, U.S. educators were hit with a sobering reality: students across the country had suffered drastic learning loss following school disruptions during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. A nationwide evaluation called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed declines in math and reading scores for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students in a majority of states between 2019 and 2022. Additionally, an investigation by the Associated Press and Stanford University found roughly 230,000 students had gone “missing” from schools across 21 states since the start of school lockdowns. The number, which the AP noted was likely an underestimation, represents students who could not be accounted for after considering those who had moved states, enrolled in private schools, or shifted to home schooling.
As studies continue to come out about the impact the pandemic has had on test scores, school districts are trying to figure out the best way to help students catch up academically, shifting the focus toward supporting students who are still enrolled in schools, while efforts to help unaccounted students reenter the school system have largely halted. But helping the remaining students will be an uphill battle, particularly for public schools serving low-income and BIPOC-majority student populations, many of which experienced learning gaps before the pandemic.
The 2022 NAEP report, popularly known as “the nation’s report card,” was the first published after pandemic school closures. The report signified the largest average score decline in reading since the NAEP was first performed in 1990 and the first decline in math scores.
“Both this school year and last school year, public school leaders estimated that about half of their students began the school year behind grade level in at least one academic subject,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the national evaluation, in February.
Sienna, an elementary teacher in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District who has asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, has noticed a bigger struggle with younger students who spent their early academic years remotely.
“I’m seeing a much more dramatic issue with the students who are in fourth grade now than the ones that I taught [in sixth grade] in the online years,” said Sienna.
Like other schools serving low-income BIPOC students, Sienna’s students faced learning barriers before the pandemic. Many of her students are English as a second language learners—otherwise known as ESL learners—whose families recently came from Mexico and South America. Learning in a different language has compounded the challenges of remote learning. Many of Sienna’s fourth-grade students are still reading at a kindergarten level, which she believes stems from a combination of spending their formative second-grade year online while being ESL learners, “so they didn’t really get a lot of progress in second grade,” Sienna said.
According to the national report card, ESL students saw average reading scores drop by five points between 2020 and 2022, while the group’s average math scores saw a wider decline of seven points.
But students whose primary language is English have also fallen behind academically. From the same report, the national average mathematics score for fourth graders dropped five points since 2019, while eighth-graders’ math scores dropped by eight points. In terms of reading, average scores for both grades fell by three points.
Even more troubling is the increase of students performing below the NAEP Basic achievement level across both subjects and grade levels since the pre-pandemic era. The 2022 report card showed as much as a quarter of fourth-graders were performing below the NAEP Basic level in math in 2022—an increase from 19% in 2019—while 38% of eighth-graders were performing below NAEP Basic in math, too, an increase of 7 percentage points from 2019. As for reading, 37% of fourth-graders were reading below the NAEP Basic level last year—an increase from 34% in 2019—while 30% of eighth-graders were reading below NAEP Basic in 2022, an increase of 3 percentage points over the same period.
One way teachers are trying to help students is through a web-based assessment program called i-Ready, which can diagnose students’ proficiency levels in math and reading and creates personalized instruction materials for each student based on that assessment. Although the program has existed for years, more school districts have opted to implement the program as schools shifted between in-person and remote learning. Julie Hunter, the assistant principal of a charter school in Philadelphia, said her teachers have been using i-Ready to support in-class learning since the pandemic. She said that her school has prioritized tailored learning to match students’ skills level as teachers try to help students make up for learning loss.
“We spend a lot of time looking at student writing or looking at various student work samples and asking ourselves, ‘OK, what are kids doing really well, and where are areas that the collective or individual students need support with developing?’ And then we’ll co-create responsive teaching lessons that are either delivered whole group or small group to individualize students based on that performance,” Hunter said.
In the West Contra Costa Unified School District, where Sienna teaches, schools have recently adopted i-Ready assessment and teaching tools. While the program has some limitations—Sienna said assessments sometimes did not align with her own evaluation of her students—it has been helpful in curating custom learning materials based on different proficiency levels. But individualized lessons can be challenging to implement for teachers in public schools with larger class sizes.
“A lot of [students] are not silent working when I’m trying to work with a small group, or they just need a lot of consequences and reminders about behavior. And so it’s hard to attend to the small groups,” said Sienna, who teaches 30 students with varying proficiency levels. “I’m not doing a whole class lesson that’s up to fourth-grade level because the ones that don’t even know how to read or write very much are going to be totally lost.” Her biggest ask to support her classroom work would be to have a teacher aide, she said.
In Philadelphia, the eighth-largest school district in the country where the majority of students are Black, the NAEP report showed the district suffered declines in average math scores between 2019 and 2022, dropping from 217 to 209 for fourth graders and just slightly for eighth graders from 256 to 252. While overall there was not a significant change in average reading scores between 2019 and 2022 for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students in Philadelphia, a majority of fourth-graders and nearly half of the eighth-graders in the district were already reading below NEAP’s Basic level prior to the pandemic.
According to Nichelle Morgan, the founding literacy director at Joyful Readers, a tutoring program focused on improving reading proficiency for K-3 students in Philadelphia, there has been a shift in her work between pre-COVID years and now.
“Students who didn’t have access to tutoring services during the pandemic or their parents could not support them at home … definitely saw a bigger gap between students performing below grade level mid-COVID, [compared to] pre-COVID,” Morgan said.
There is not enough data to support whether assessment tools like i-Ready are effective in increasing students’ subject skills. But research has consistently shown tutoring is one of the most effective intervention tools to help students overcome learning gaps. There are, however, caveats—studies suggest tutoring programs are most effective when done in groups of up to three or four students where students can receive one-on-one engagement with the instructor, known as “high-dosage tutoring”; when the tutoring is done multiple times per week; and when it is performed during school hours instead of after school. Notably, tutoring programs that are “opt-in,” meaning struggling students must register to join on their own, have not proven effective.
High-dosage tutoring is particularly important for younger children because “they have this additional opportunity to practice those skills that they may not grasp in the classroom, or, if they’re performing below grade level, the tutors are working on skills that they may have missed in, say, the third grade,” said Morgan, whose organization works with young children who are reading below grade level. Additionally, she noted that two-thirds of tutors under Joyful Readers serving Philadelphia schools are educators of color.
“Building strong readers and improving reading skills comes with providing a space where students feel welcome, students feel comfortable enough to practice reading, and [students are] able to have access to books where they see themselves,” Morgan said.
Some schools have begun making tutoring available for students as a means to combat learning loss from the pandemic. Based on data from the School Pulse Panel, a survey focused on COVID-19-related recovery under the NCES, as of December, about 83% of public schools provide some type of tutoring to their students. However, only 37% of schools offer high-dosage tutoring.
Tutoring is just one way educators can help students succeed. Learning interventions must include more than just extra academic lessons, especially in public schools serving low-income BIPOC students.
“By pressuring or placing an undue amount of pressure on young people … I think that takes away from the organic relationships,” said Hunter. “Educators serve not just to help kids become better readers, writers, mathematicians, critical thinkers, but also to raise the next generation of students to be great people to feel empowered in who they are.”