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How much learning did students miss during the pandemic? Researchers have an answer

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Historic in magnitude. That's how new research describes just how much learning students missed during the pandemic.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The researchers reviewed a mountain of data covering nearly 8,000 school districts to create the clearest picture yet of which students were hit hardest and why.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Cory Turner joins us now. Cory, how much learning do researchers think students have missed out on?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Yeah. The average student, A, in grades third through eighth missed half a year of math. And in reading, they missed a quarter of a year. And that's according to researchers at Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research and Stanford's Educational Opportunity Project. Now, not surprisingly, wealth and poverty played a big role here. By last year, a student in the poorest 10% of districts had missed twice as much math learning as her peers in the richest districts. Researchers say students of color were also more likely to be hit hard. And, obviously, these differences come on top of already large opportunity gaps between our most and our least privileged students.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And what about schools being remote for long periods of time? I mean, what effect did that have?

TURNER: Yeah, a big one. I put that question to Tom Kane. He's one of the researchers and a professor at Harvard.

TOM KANE: There's no question. In places where schools were remote or hybrid longer, students lost more ground. And that was particularly true in high-poverty districts.

TURNER: So, for example, A, in districts where schools were remote for nearly all of the 2020-21 school year, students missed nearly twice as much math as districts that had stayed largely in-person. But this is key here. School closures were only part of the story. The researchers found other community-level factors beyond school that also affected how much kids did or didn't learn.

MARTÍNEZ: Other factors. What kind of other factors?

TURNER: Well, so students missed more learning in places with higher COVID death rates and where adults were more likely to say they were feeling depressed or anxious about the pandemic. On the other hand, students missed less learning in places where people were more likely to vote or respond to the U.S. Census. In their brief, the researchers explained that one by saying, living in a community where more people trust the government appears to have been an asset to children during the pandemic.

They also found that social activities, like going out to dinner or meeting a friend in public, were intertwined with kids' learning. Tom Kane told me, basically, the places where life was more disrupted saw bigger losses. And finally, A, they looked at earlier test score drops before the pandemic. You know, when a single district may have been hit by a local flu outbreak or maybe too many snow days, they wanted to see if kids naturally made up that ground over time. Here's Sean Reardon. He's another one of the researchers on the project and a professor of education and sociology at Stanford.

SEAN REARDON: And what was, I think, striking and surprising and a little sobering was that when there's a big decline in one year, those cohorts don't seem to catch up for those three or four years that we can follow them into the future.

TURNER: So Reardon warns, parents and public officials shouldn't just assume that schools can make up for all that lost ground because history shows in those test scores, without a concerted effort, much of it will just stay lost.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Cory Turner. Cory, thanks.

TURNER: You're welcome, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.