Massive learning setbacks show the considerable toll of COVID on children

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the well-being of poor children, not only closing their schools, but also taking away their parents’ jobs, sickening their families and teachers, and adding chaos and fear. to their daily life.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the well-being of poor children, not only closing their schools, but also taking away their parents’ jobs, sickening their families and teachers, and adding chaos and fear. to their daily life.

The scale of the disruption to the education of American children is evident in a district-by-district analysis of test results shared exclusively with The Associated Press. The data provides the most comprehensive look yet at school children falling behind.

The analysis found that the average student lost more than half a school year of math learning and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading – with some district averages slipping more than double those amounts, or even worse.

Online learning has played a major role, but students have lost a lot of ground even as they quickly returned to schools, especially in math in low-income communities.

“When you have a massive crisis, the worst effects end up being felt by the less endowed people,” said Stanford education professor Sean Reardon, who compiled and analyzed the data with Harvard economist Thomas Kane. .

Some educators have opposed the very idea of ​​measuring learning loss after a crisis that killed more than a million Americans. Reading and math scores don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on with a child, but they are one of the only aspects of children’s development reliably measured nationally.

“Test results are not the only thing, nor the most important thing,” Reardon said. “But they serve as an indicator of how the kids are doing.”

And the children are not doing well, especially those who were most at risk before the pandemic. Data shows that many children need significant intervention, and advocates and researchers say the United States is not doing enough.

Together, Reardon and Kane created a map showing how many years of learning the average student in each district has lost since 2019. Their project, the Education Recovery Dashboard, compared the results of a test known as the “national report card” along with a local standardized test. scores from 29 states and Washington, D.C.

In Memphis, Tennessee, where nearly 80% of students are poor, students lost the equivalent of 70% of a school year in reading and more than a year in math, according to the analysis. Black students in the district lost a year and a third in math and two-thirds of a year in reading.

For church pastor Charles Lampkin, who is black, it was the effects on his sons’ reading that caught his attention. He was studying the Bible with them one evening that fall when he noticed that his sixth- and seventh-grade students were struggling with their “junior” Bible editions written for fifth-grade reading level. “They couldn’t get through,” Lampkin said.

Lampkin blames the year and a half that his sons were absent from school buildings from March 2020 to the fall of 2021.

“They weren’t engaged at all. It was just stupidity,” he said.

Officials at the local district, Shelby County Public Schools, did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. According to district submissions, schools in Shelby County offered tutoring to low-achieving students last year. Most of the students who received tutoring focused on English language arts, but not math. Lampkin said his sons have not received additional help.

The amount of learning that students have lost – or gained, in rare cases – over the past three years has varied widely. Poverty and time spent in remote learning affected learning loss, and learning losses were greater in districts that stayed online longer, according to Kane and Reardon’s analysis. But neither was a perfect predictor of declines in reading and math.

In some districts, students have lost more than two years of math learning, the data shows. Hopewell, Va., a school system of 4,000 mostly low-income and 60% black students, had an average loss of 2.29 years of education.

“That’s not what we wanted to see at all,” Deputy Superintendent Jay McClain said.

The district began offering in-person learning in March 2021, but three-quarters of students stayed home. “There was so much fear of the effects of COVID,” he said. “Families here were just hunkered down.”

When schools resumed in the fall, the virus swept through Hopewell and half of all students stayed home sick or in quarantine, McClain said. A good 40% of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 days or more.

The pandemic has brought other challenges unrelated to remote learning.

In Rochester, New Hampshire, students lost nearly two years in reading, even though schools offered in-person learning for most of the 2020-2021 school year. This was the largest decline in literacy among all the districts in the analysis.

The district of 4,000 students, where most are white and nearly half live in poverty, had to close schools in November 2020 when too few teachers could report to work, Superintendent Kyle Repucci said. Students studied online until March 2021, and when schools reopened many opted to stick with remote learning, Repucci said.

“The students here were exposed to things they never should have been exposed to until much later,” Repucci said. “Death. Serious illness. Working to feed their families.

In Los Angeles, school leaders closed classrooms for the entire 2020-2021 school year, but students held on in reading.

It is difficult to say what explains the very different results in some states. In California, where students on average held steady or declined only slightly, that could suggest educators there were better at teaching over Zoom or that the state made effective investments in technology, said Reardon.

But the differences could also be explained by what happened outside of school. “I think the variation is much more about things that were out of the school’s control,” Reardon said.

Now it is up to American adults to work for the recovery of children. For the federal government and individual states, advocates hope recent releases of test data could inspire more urgency to direct funding to students who have suffered the greatest setbacks, whether a academic or other support.

School systems are still spending nearly $190 billion in federal relief funds earmarked for recovery, a sum that experts say falls short of addressing the scale of learning loss in schools. According to Kane and Reardon’s analysis, nearly 70 percent of college students live in districts where federal relief funds are likely insufficient to address the scale of their learning loss.

The implications for children’s futures are alarming: Lower test scores are predictors of lower wages, as well as higher rates of incarceration and teenage pregnancy, Kane said.

It doesn’t take Harvard research to convince parents whose children have trouble reading or learning algebra that something needs to be done.

At his church in Memphis, Lampkin started his own tutoring program three nights a week. Adults from his congregation, including some teachers, help about 50 students with homework, build skills and teach new ones.

“We shouldn’t have done that,” Lampkin said. “But sometimes you have to lead by example.”


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Bianca Vazquez Toness and Sharon Lurye, Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia