The report shows how the pandemic has affected students’ learning speed

A group of economists studied NWEA’s achievement data at the peak of learning losses in the spring of 2021 and estimated that fourth- and fifth-graders fell eight to 10 weeks behind in reading and math, respectively. Based on the next catch up NWEA records in the spring of 2022, upper elementary school students may now be six to seven weeks behind.

However, some groups of students, especially secondary school students, did not progress so well. Students completing eighth grade in the spring of 2022 fell 18 percent more behind in math than in 2021. This suggests that their math learning loss may extend from week 19 to week 23 – about six months behind – when they start high school in the fall. Class VII students also did not make any progress in mathematics.

“Middle schoolers are where we see the most stagnation,” Lewis says. “It’s definitely worrying. Those are the kids who have the longest roadmap to catch up.”

Getting kids back on track academically is arguably one of the most pressing challenges our nation faces right now. If we fail, the long-term economic and social costs are enormous. One group estimates that the U.S. economy could lose more than $128 billion a year, while another worries that today’s generation of students is at risk of losing $2 trillion in lifetime earnings.

This report does not address why or how some students fell behind and others read further. Eighth graders were in sixth grade when the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020, and their mental health may have been more affected by pandemic isolation. At the same time, the material students need to learn in secondary school is more complex and the rate of learning slows.

Third graders posted slower progress in reading than fourth and fifth graders. These third graders were in first grade and learning to read when the pandemic hit in 2020. Based on their rate of progress, NWEA estimates it will take more than five years to catch up. Third graders are the youngest students analyzed in this NWEA report, which tracks only children who enrolled in school before the pandemic hit to measure learning losses. We do not know from these reports whether even young children suffer more.

Low-income students show just as much achievement progress as high-income students. For example, fifth graders in both high-poverty schools and low-poverty schools improved by nine points on math tests. But low-income children, who were already lagging behind before the pandemic, have lost the most ground, and the achievement gap with high-income children is still huge.

“Students in low-poverty schools are likely to recover faster because they have less room to make up,” the NWEA researchers wrote in their brief.

We cannot tell from this report which catch-up interventions, such as tutoring and summer school, led to improvements in learning. NWEA is working with outside researchers and will issue its first report later this year. Perhaps these reports can help shed light on the best ways to help children who are left behind—whether there is an epidemic or not.

This story is about learning loss Written by Jill Barshe and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger Newsletter.