(NEW YORK) — Elementary and middle school students have only made up some of the losses in math and reading they experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report finds.
For the report, published Wednesday, a collaborative team at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, looked at the first year of regular testing between spring 2022 and spring 2023 for school districts in 30 states.
Overall, students managed to recover about one-third of the original loss in math and one-quarter of the loss in reading. While these gains are historic, students are still not where they should be, the researchers found.
“Both of those gains were large by historical standards, but the gains in average achievement are masking the dramatic widening in achievement that happened between 2019 and 2022, and just the failure of many of the high poverty districts to catch up,” Dr. Thomas Kane, co-author of the report and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research, told ABC News.
When broken down by subject, only students in Alabama returned to pre-pandemic achievement levels in math, meaning levels seen in 2019, the report found. However, students in 17 states are still one-third behind 2019 levels in math.
Meanwhile, students in three states — Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi — returned to 2019 reading achievement levels while students in 14 states remain more than one-third of a grade level behind in reading.
The report’s authors say that districts would need at least another year of recovery in math and two more years in reading for students to catch up to pre-pandemic level achievements.
However, even if last year’s pace could be maintained, students will not be caught up by the time federal relief expires in September.
K-12 schools received $190 billion in federal aid from Congress during the pandemic, most of which went to high-poverty districts. Currently, $51 billion of aid remains, which must be returned to the federal government if unused by September. The authors say states and districts should use the remaining funds to help students catch up academically.
The report also found that in many states, the recovery of math and reading losses has been led by wealthier districts, including those in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Kane said in Massachusetts, high-poverty districts didn’t just fail to catch up but lost further ground between spring 2022 and spring 2023 so the improvement came from the higher-income suburbs, which he called “disappointing” and “concerning.”
Nilesh Patel, a high school principal at Kairos Academies in St. Louis, has seen the advantages families in wealthier districts had during the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, many high-income families relied on private tutors to maintain their students’ achievement while lower-income families didn’t have the resources to do the same,” he told ABC News. “A lot of school-based interventions meant to close the gap were too little, too late. What we really need are strong early childhood interventions.”
Dr. Jade Cobern, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, told ABC News that disparities between high and low-income areas mostly affect racial and ethnic minorities.
“Not only do some disparities still exist, but in some places are getting worse for these groups of kids. It’s essential for these kids that we focus more research and resources to close these gaps,” she said.
Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor, added that educational disparities could lead to broader health inequalities in the future.
To recover pre-pandemic losses, the researchers recommend schools take several steps including informing parents if their child is below grade level in math or reading so parents have time to enroll their kids in summer learning and for schools to expand summer learning in 2024.
Additionally, they recommend districts contract “high-quality” tutoring and after-school programs before September for the 2024-25 school year.
“For next school year, because under the federal law, they can’t spend the money on their own employees’ salaries after September, but they can make payment payments on, you know, contracts as long as those contracts were signed before September,” Kane said.
ABC News’ Dr. John Brownstein contributed to this report.
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