Although most schools have returned to some semblance of in-person learning for families who want it, education researchers and analysts are still working to gauge the impact of extended school closures. A recently published research brief from Curriculum Associates takes a closer look at unfinished learning, another term for “learning loss.”
Using i-Ready’s criterion-referenced, grade-level placement tests, analysts compared student achievement during winter 2020–21 to the achievement expected during a typical school year. Students were asked to report whether they took the test in school or out, allowing researchers to disaggregate data based on testing location. The results from in-school assessments proved to be the closest to a “true” comparison of prior year performance, as the testing location was more consistent with historical conditions and the results were less variable from student to student. As such, the results reported in this brief cover only in-school assessment data—an important limitation given how many students are still learning at home full-time.
The sample includes students in grades one through eight who took the midyear diagnostic assessment during the winter of the 2020–21 school year. It comprises nearly 1,160,000 students for reading and more than 1,291,000 for math. Students from forty-nine states and the District of Columbia are represented, though the number of students is not statistically representative of any state. To compare winter results to prior years, the researchers constructed a historical average to represent typical performance during the three previous school years. They also matched student data at the school level to ensure that current and historical samples consisted of students in the same school, and school demographic data were obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics.
i-Ready assessments provide teachers and parents with grade-level placements that are relative to a student’s chronological grade level. Based on a student’s performance, they could be designated as on, below, or above grade level. For the purposes of this paper, students who were designated “Early On Grade Level” or higher are considered on grade level, which means they have partially met grade-level college and career readiness standards. They are referred to as students who are ready for grade-level work. Students who were designated “Two or More Grade Levels Below” are considered below grade level, which means they aren’t yet close to meeting college and career readiness standards. They are referred to as students who are underprepared for grade level work. The researchers differentiate between these two groups—students who are on grade level and those who are below—throughout the brief, as they observed slightly different patterns when examining the demographic data.
Overall, the findings indicate that unfinished learning was greater this winter in both reading and math compared to historical averages. In reading, the percentage of students considered ready for grade-level content decreased across all grades, with a particularly strong decline in grades one through three. The percentage of students who were underprepared for grade-level reading content also increased. Math results are similar. The percentage of students considered prepared for grade-level content decreased during the 2020–21 school year, with students in grades one through six demonstrating the largest amount of unfinished learning. The percentage of students who were underprepared for grade-level math content also swelled, with students in grades two through six showing the greatest increases. In both subjects, the youngest students appear to have suffered the most from school closures.
Unfinished learning was greater for students who attend schools serving a majority of Black or Latino students, although it is important to note these results rely on school-level demographics, which do not capture diversity within a school or variability within a school’s demographic groups. For this finding, the researchers focus on third grade results, as it is a “pivotal year” that research indicates is predictive of high school outcomes. Across the board and compared to historical averages, the percentage of third graders who were ready for grade-level work decreased in both reading and math. These declines were similar across groups and within each subject. There are, however, notable differences in which students were impacted. In reading, there is a greater increase in unfinished learning among those who attend schools serving a majority of Black and Latino students compared to schools with a majority White population. The results are similar in math, where unfinished learning was greater for schools that serve a majority of Black or Latino students compared to majority White schools.
Unfinished learning was also greater for students who attend schools located in lower-income areas. The researchers disaggregated data based on the median annual household income associated with a school’s zip code. They found that the percentage of students who are considered ready for grade-level content decreased regardless of income bracket and across grade levels and subjects. However, in reading, the decline among third graders was slightly less for students who attend schools in zip codes where the median income is greater than $75,000. Similarly, although the percentage of third graders who are underprepared for grade-level content increased regardless of income bracket, the changes were steeper for students who attend schools located in zip codes with an annual median income below $50,000. In layman’s terms, kids from lower income areas were less likely to be ready and more likely to be underprepared for grade-level reading content. The same proved true for math.
It’s still too early to determine empirically whether students have caught up after starting behind this fall. But the researchers took a look at changes in grade-level placements for a sample of students who took the i-Ready diagnostic during both the fall and winter testing windows to see if any patterns emerged. They found that in some subjects and grade levels, the difference between the historical average and the current school year increased, while in others it decreased. This particular finding must be interpreted with caution due to sample constraints, but it appears that the variability across subjects and grades makes the midyear results inconclusive as far as whether students are catching up.
The brief closes with several recommendations for addressing the “persistent and significant” challenges of unfinished learning. These include ensuring assessments deliver clear and actionable data, choosing high-quality and rigorous curricula that focus on grade-level work and addressing learning gaps as needed, setting ambitious yet attainable goals for students, and prioritizing coherence to avoid redundancy. These strategies and more will be desperately needed to address the unfinished learning identified in this report—and the even greater gaps that have likely opened up for students who haven’t set foot in classrooms in over a year and weren’t part of this particular analysis.
Source: “What We’ve Learned about Unfinished Learning,” Curriculum Associates (March 2021).