I feel compelled to revisit a theme that has appeared in several earlier blogs—in part because, as IES becomes more focused on how best to help students catch up on unfinished learning resulting from the pandemic, the severity of the problem is becoming clearer.
We know that the pandemic was a catastrophe for students. Estimates of just how much students have fallen behind vary from bad to very, very bad (excuse the technical language), and we have some evidence from OECD that this learning loss will likely lead to trillions of dollars in lost economic productivity. And from our own personal experiences (I will spare you further references to my daughters), we know that the lockdown has strained families, schools, and communities, many of which were already facing significant pressures.
While the evidence is not (yet) extensive, we have reason to believe that the negative effects of the pandemic will be greatest among the nation's lowest-performing students. These students were already struggling before they lost access to daily, in-person instruction. A pattern of declining scores among the lowest-performing students is evident in every NAEP assessment administered over the last few years, regardless of topic, and for both 4th and 8th graders. The scores American students earn on TIMMS math and science assessments confirm it.
While we all love high-tech visualizations, I'm going to share a low-tech one: the tables below show changes in student performance on multiple assessments given in 2014/15 and again in 2018/19. The shaded boxes show where scores declined by a statistically significant margin. Unshaded boxes indicate no statistically significant change—there in no need for another color to highlight scores that increased, because none did. Further, scores declined most sharply among the lowest-performing students. And note that the declines at the 10th percentile were bigger than the declines at the 25th percentile—so while all our low-performing students are losing ground, the lowest-performing students are losing even more.
A disaster. I could go over each table line-by-line, cell-by-cell, but that would only increase my dismay.
As IES responds to the academic impact of COVID-19, we will never lose sight of a simple fact: many students were falling behind even before the pandemic. Every lesson we learn about recovering from the pandemic must be deployed to remedy the dangerous, pre-existing downward trend among our nation's lowest-performing students.
|Five Year Trends in 4th Grade Achievement|
|NAEP Math||NAEP Reading||NAEP Science||TIMSS Math||TIMSS Science|
|Overall change in average scores: 2015 to 2019||2||2||7|
|Five Year Trends in 8th Grade Achievement|
|NAEP Matha||NAEP Readinga||NAEP Civicsb||NAEP Geographyb||NAEP U.S. Historyb||NAEP Sciencea||TIMSS Matha||TIMSS Sciencea|
|Overall change in average scores||2||3||4|
|a Change is from 2015 to 2019|
|b Change is from 2014 to 2018|