Study Reveals Learning Loss ‘Tornado’

Last month, the Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration with researchers at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR) and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project, released the first comparable view of district-level learning loss during the pandemic utilizing the recently released 2022 NAEP data and data from the states that have publicly reported their district proficiency rates on their spring 2022 assessments. These interactive district-level maps include data from 29 states (plus DC)—where the necessary data was available.

The new research uses the 2022 NAEP scores to make state assessment results comparable and incorporates data on weeks remote and the federal recovery dollars (ESSER) received per district, equipping state and local leaders with the information they need to recalibrate their current recovery plans.  

Interestingly, some school districts with higher poverty rates—such as Los Angeles, which instituted remote learning for longer than most other districts—performed comparatively well in the assessments. In fact, even with its long closures, California performed better than most other states and the nation from 2019–22, but the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to impact student achievement overall and across all student groups.

“California focused on keeping kids safe during the pandemic while making record investments to mitigate learning loss and transforming our education system,” said Governor Gavin Newsom.

“While California’s students experienced less learning loss than those in most other states during the pandemic, these results are not a celebration but a call to action—students are struggling academically and we need to keep getting them the resources they need to thrive. That’s why we’ve made record investments in education, created a new pre-K grade, implemented universal free meals, expanded before- and after-school programs, bolstered mental health, and more.”

“The pandemic was like a band of tornadoes that swept across the country,” said CEPR faculty director Thomas J. Kane. “Some communities were left relatively untouched, while neighboring schools were devastated. The Education Recovery Scorecard is the first high-resolution map of the tornadoes’ path to help local leaders see the magnitude of the damage and guide local recovery efforts.”

“One of the things we found is that even within a district, there is variability. School districts are the first line of action to help children catch up. The better they know about the patterns of learning loss, the more they’re going to be able to target their resources effectively to reduce educational inequality of opportunity and help children and communities thrive,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University and director of the Educational Opportunity Project.

In response to the findings, US secretary of education Miguel Cardona said, “We must muster the political will at the state and local level to match the urgency and federal investment in our students through the historic $122 billion in the American Rescue Plan. The latest Nation’s Report Card results must serve as a call to action to revisit our existing plans and scale up proven academic recovery strategies such as ensuring a robust and qualified teacher and leader workforce, intense and frequent tutoring aligned to high-quality curriculum, and after-school and summer enrichment programming. While the recent data is alarming, catching our students up to the 2019 achievement levels is a low bar. We must aim higher. Our students should be leading the world.”

Civil rights leaders see this new research as a call to action for state leaders to rise up a much bolder, more aggressive response. 
“Learning losses among minority students over the last two years have put the long-term vitality of the nation at risk. Latino and African American students make up nearly half of all students, making it a national imperative to invest in their academic recovery,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS.

“If there is a sparkle of light during these dark times, it’s our nation’s historic infusion of funds through ARP and ESSER,” said John B. King, president of the Education Trust. “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.”