Missing Pieces: Recovering from Pandemic Learning Loss

Jed Applerouth, PhD
August 17, 2023
min read
Missing Pieces: Recovering from Pandemic Learning Loss

The legacy of the pandemic can be seen and felt in numerous areas of society, but some of the enduring effects are less immediately obvious. While students have, for the most part, returned to typical learning conditions, the time students spent in pandemic conditions may have lingering effects that play out for years.

We have ample evidence that the pandemic had a broadly negative impact on educational outcomes for millions of students. The effects were not distributed evenly, and lower-resourced students who endured the most remote learning and protracted school shut-downs paid the biggest price.

Expectations for students were greatly diminished during the pandemic, syllabi were reduced, and grading frequently became more generous given the disrupted learning conditions. While GPAs frequently did not suffer, actual learning did, and many bad habits were developed. Pandemic-driven educational gaps continue to show up broadly on standardized assessments of learning, and for many students, weakened educational foundations are having negative effects when they progress to more advanced classes.

Evidence of Learning Loss is Everywhere

One meta-analysis of global learning loss published in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that as of 2022, students lost on average 35% of a typical school year’s progress.

Researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins teamed up to analyze student outcomes for 26 million K-8 students to produce The Educational Recovery Scorecard. The team found that by the spring of 2022, the average student was lagging by approximately one-half year in math and one-third of a year in reading.

An analysis by ProPublica found that for schools that went remote for 90% or more of 2020-2021, the decline in math scores represented the loss of 2/3 of an academic year, nearly double the drop for those who went remote for less than 10% of the year.

The Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shown the math and reading performance of 13-year-olds in the US has not recovered from the pandemic. The 2022 NAEP revealed that the percentage of 8th graders achieving math proficiency fell from 34 percent to 26 percent. In 2023, NAEP scores fell to the lowest level in decades, taking math scores back to lows not seen since 1990. For the lowest-performing students, reading scores were lower than they have ever been since the first data collection point in 1971. The recent findings demonstrate a “huge-scale challenge that faces the nation,” according to Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP exam.

Another reflection of pandemic learning loss is the decline in AP scores and SAT and ACT scores. In 2021, the average AP exam score fell from a 3.03 to 2.8, the lowest on record, with 34 of 36 subjects showing a decline, and the most 1s in program history. Some subjects declined a full half point from the previous year. Similarly SAT and ACT scores declined during and post-pandemic, with the average ACT score falling to the lowest level in more than 30 years. ACT CEO Janet Godwin expressed concern at how many students are moving on to college without meeting the college readiness benchmarks in any of the subjects the ACT measures.

Post-pandemic, more students have moved on to college ill-prepared for the academic rigors and social-emotional demands of the next stage of their education. The New York Times has reported on students who found themselves floundering in college-level STEM classes following the pandemic, reporting how much they had missed during the two disjointed years of remote learning. Many students entered college needing significant remediation and many lacked “rigorous study habits”.

At the college level, a 2023 student experience survey conducted by Qualtrics and College Pulse found that only 1 in 3 undergrads in 4-year colleges said their high school education made them feel “very” or “extremely prepared” for their campus coursework. Unprepared students are going to naturally experience a greater degree of stress and anxiety than those who feel prepared. This will lead to a greater demand for mental health services, which has been playing out across the country, in what some are calling a mental health crisis.

Some researchers are already speculating how the gaps that emerged during the pandemic, if they persist, could affect income inequality, employment, and even national productivity for years or decades to come.

The Remedy

One of the lead researchers from the Educational Recovery Scorecard, Thomas Kane, faculty director of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, has stated that “we’ve got to go far beyond normal to help students catch up.”

The team’s analyses over decades reveals that when students experience significant declines in learning, those losses tend to persist. Kane and colleagues have proposed various means to reclaim the lost instructional time, from tutoring during the school day, extending the school year, providing summer school options, and doubling math classes.

In 2021 the federal government allocated significant financial support to school districts nationwide with over $24B specifically earmarked to remedy pandemic learning loss. Of the many ways that money has been spent, high dosage small-group tutoring has been shown to be one of the more effective interventions to bring students back up to speed; however, only 10 percent of public school students participated in that type of tutoring.

With federal dollars expected to dry up by September 2024, some states are already starting to allocate their own resources towards addressing pandemic learning loss. New York just earmarked $108 million in grants to help NY students overcome learning loss. Other states will follow.

What can you do to help your students?

The federal and state governments have to act broadly and invest appropriately to help this generation of students recover from pandemic learning loss, but is it possible for you as an individual parent to help your student address gaps in skill sets that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic?

Most definitely. Here are six steps you can take now to support your student as they close the gap between where they may be now and where they ought to be:

1. Shore up weak math foundations early.

Listen to your kids when they tell you they are struggling, especially in STEM subjects. See what supplemental support you or their school can provide to shore up math skills.

Gaps in basic foundations of math can lead to challenges in later math and science classes. It’s far better to intervene early and shore up weak foundations than to wait until a student is truly struggling and grades are undermined.

For many students who missed fundamentals during middle school, it may make sense to recruit some support before high school begins and math demands naturally increase. Our expert tutors are here to help students get those fundamentals in place before they experience problems. Give us a call at 866-789-PREP (7737) or book a time to speak about which tutoring program is right for you.

2. Dialogue with your students about their experience of learning during the pandemic.

Ask explicitly about areas where they felt prepared, and subjects where they may have earned a decent grade but learned less than expected.

I recently spoke with one of my students who shared about her year and a half of remote learning during college. She got an A in calculus, but only because the assignments were greatly reduced and everything was open-note. She doesn’t really understand calculus, which may be an issue in more advanced classes. Similarly, her in-person science labs were canceled and she had to instead watch a video of someone performing the lab, which led to vastly reduced comprehension.

Students may be able to self-calibrate or self-diagnose the issue if there are gaps in comprehension, which can help with future planning, remedial tutoring, and course taking.

3. Encourage reading of any kind.

One of the most disappointing findings from the survey which accompanied the 2023 NAEP was that 31 percent of 13-year-olds reported that they “never or hardly ever” read for fun, compared to 22 percent in 2012. When students don’t read on their own, it will be very hard to catch up on reading fluency and comprehension skills outside of the classroom.

Students who read for pleasure, who build the attentional skills and vocabulary skills from reading, will have major advantages throughout their academic lives. Encourage reading, offer to buy your students books, and make sure they see you reading, modeling the behavior you’d like to see in them.

4. Shore up study skills and learning habits.

Many students developed bad habits during the pandemic, in terms of when and where they studied, how much time they spent studying, and how they prepared for assignments and assessments.

In some cases students missed developing foundational study skills while they were in remote learning. When students learn how to more effectively study, get help, manage their resources, and prioritize, they tend to do better academically.

Students who develop their executive functioning skills will have a better chance of staying ahead of course material and attaining better grades. These skills, the “hidden curriculum,” can be taught.

Our executive function experts are the perfect resource to get these skills back on track. Give us a call at 866-789-PREP (7737) or book a time to speak to one of our Program Directors to find out how to get your student started with executive function coaching.

5. Address social and emotional development.

Many students took a step back socially and emotionally during the pandemic. It was a hard time for kids—an isolating time, when growth was limited. Some students have fully recovered from the pandemic isolation, but others need a bit more support, scaffolding and encouragement.

I’m no fan of social engineering and taking over the social development of your kids, but you can encourage and support your children by creating openings for them to be social. For example, set up activities and see if friends want to come along. With support, kids can catch up from the social gaps of the pandemic.

6. Help provide outlets for stress and talk candidly about anxiety.

Too many students feel increased anxiety since the dawn of the pandemic. The younger students learn coping skills and develop resources to manage stress and regulate anxiety, the better.

Get to know your student’s resources for handling stress, managing self-care, and maintaining a healthy inner-dialogue. Talk to your kids about your stresses, how you manage them, and what has and hasn’t worked for you. Consider seeking outside resources if that’s appropriate given the circumstances for your child.

No matter what, get that dialogue started early and help your students develop their own coping strategies and resources that will serve them for their academic lives and beyond.


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