T The Big Idea
The COVID-19 epidemic has resulted in significant reductions of student learning in metro-Atlanta’s public elementary and secondary schools. What’s more, these impacts have grown over time, according to our new research.
The winter of 2020-21 showed that students were up to seven months behind in math achievement than they would have been if there had not been the pandemic. Students were 7 1/2 months behind in reading for some grades.
Students often fell further behind during the winter and autumn tests, sometimes dramatically. The effects of the pandemic varied by subject, grade and school district, complicating how districts can determine their responses to this unprecedented disruption to formal education.
We also found that the epidemic often made preexisting inequalities worse.
Students who were eligible for reduced-price or free meals, which is a rough measure of poverty, experienced lower achievement growth than those not eligible. In the same way, students from traditionally marginalized groups such as Black students, Hispanic students, and English learners experienced greater reductions in achievement growth.
We wanted the ability to determine if a return to in-person instruction would help reduce the effects of the pandemic. Elementary school students that returned to in person instruction in the fall 2020-21 had greater achievement growth than students learning remotely. But their growth was still below comparable students before and after the pandemic. This could be due to student difficulty in transitioning back to in-person learning, emotional trauma or other effects of the pandemic. Teaching could also be made more difficult by increased student achievement disparities. Middle school students showed little difference in learning rates between remote and in-person instruction.
Why it matters
Many people worry that the school closures and virtual learning in the pandemic slow down student learning. Districts will be able to assess the extent of this slowdown and determine the appropriate intervention strategies.
It is also important to understand how achievement growth changes by instructional method – remote/hybrid and face-to–face. This information will be useful in making decisions about whether remote instruction should be used for the remainder and beyond the pandemic.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides school districts with funds to help students catch up to where their learning would have been had the pandemic not occurred. Our findings highlight the importance of focusing assistance on students who have experienced the largest reductions in achievement growth since the pandemic.
We recommend that districts employ three strategies that prior research suggests will have the greatest effect on student achievement.
First, focus on small-group tutoring which is highly intensive and based upon classroom content. This strategy comes with the highest price tag, emphasizing the need to focus on students with the greatest need.
Second, extend the school year.
And third, provide learning opportunities during summer or other breaks, and use incentives like free meals and transportation to increase participation in them.
Our research group, the Metro Atlanta Policy Lab for Education keeps digging into the effects on students of the pandemic. We are studying student engagement through remote learning and analysing the choices made by parents about their student’s learning style. We’re also unpacking unexpected findings, such as the relatively milder impacts on girls and students with disabilities.
Thomas Goldring, Director of Research at Georgia Policy Labs, Georgia State University and Tim R. Sass, Professor of Economics, Georgia State University