New Research Report from Curriculum Associates: More Students Are Starting the School Year Behind

Data shows the pandemic is not affecting all students in the same way or to the same degree

North Billerica, MA, November 4, 2021

Fewer elementary and middle school students started the 2021 school year on grade level for reading and mathematics, according to a new report released by Curriculum Associates today. The report, Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021, analyzes data gathered from the edtech company’s i-Ready Assessment tool on reading and mathematics learning from three million Grades 1–8 students over the last two years. The report provides new insights on student learning trends, quantifies the impact of extended school disruptions on unfinished learning, and highlights the disproportionate impact on the nation’s most vulnerable students. Curriculum Associates’ data examines students in relation to grade-level learning benchmarks, rather than in comparison to other students, so it provides a unique view of learning rather than rank.


  • Fewer elementary and middle school students are starting the 2021 school year reading and doing math on grade level than in the three years before the pandemic.
    • Compared to historical averages, fewer second and third graders were at grade level in reading (six and five percentage points lower, respectively), and many more students performed below grade level (nine and seven percentage points higher, respectively).

  • The majority of students experienced some academic setbacks, but the pandemic is not affecting all students in the same way.
    • The students already behind in reading and math before the pandemic experienced the most unfinished learning.
    • The percentage of older students (i.e., Grades 4–8) who are on grade level is close to pre-pandemic levels.

  • Fewer students are prepared to learn sophisticated mathematics skills, with more unfinished learning in Grades 4–6.
    • Fewer students in fifth grade were performing at grade level in the fall of 2021 (10 percentage points lower), with more students below grade level (10 percentage points higher).

  • Unfinished learning is greater for Black and Latino students in both reading and mathematics than for White students.
    • Schools serving majority Black and Latino students saw almost double the amount of unfinished learning in third grade reading and math as schools serving majority White students. The percentage of third grade students who are not on grade level in schools serving majority Black students grew by 17 percentage points, compared to six points in schools serving majority White students. In schools serving majority Latino students, the percentage of students who are behind grew by 14 percentage points.
    • Third grade is a critical year for literacy, as children at this age are still learning to read, whereas from fourth grade on students are reading to learn. This amount of unfinished learning for students of color is an urgent call for intervention.
    • Other grade levels experienced unfinished learning that matched these trends, though not at the same scale as the early grades.

  • Unfinished learning is greater for students in lower-income communities than for students in higher-income communities.
    • Unfinished learning in third grade reading increased by six percentage points in lower-income schools, compared to four percentage points in higher-income schools. Declines in third grade mathematics were even across all income groups.

“Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Assessment tool is used by more than 25% of Grades 1–8 students in the country,” said Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates. “These assessments on student learning provide insight into what millions of students are experiencing in their classrooms and in their learning journeys across the nation and in all different types of schools and communities.”

The research shows that unfinished learning occurs in every elementary and middle school grade in both reading and mathematics. Students who entered the pandemic at the greatest risk are the most in danger of not catching up after 18 months of disruption. Black and Latino students, who are more likely to attend schools in lower-income neighborhoods than White students, and those who were already two or more grade levels behind have experienced the greatest setbacks.

The news isn’t all bad: the report shows some positive change since last fall, with performance in some subjects and grade levels beginning to climb back toward pre-pandemic levels. Of note, the percentage of students on grade level in reading across Grades 4–8 is only one percentage point below pre-pandemic levels.

“This report captures a snapshot of where students are in their own learning in order to be prepared to take on grade-level work and stay on track for high school graduation and college readiness,” said Tyrone Holmes, chief inclusion officer at Curriculum Associates. “By breaking this data down by grade, subject, race, ethnicity, and income level, we can better understand the details of what we already know—that existing educational inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and some students are falling further behind. This data points to where we should be investing our resources—in students most in need of immediate support.”

Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021 is the fourth in a series of research reports on unfinished learning by Curriculum Associates. To learn more about Curriculum Associates ongoing research about unfinished learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit

About Curriculum Associates
Founded in 1969, Curriculum Associates, LLC designs research-based print and online instructional materials, screens and assessments, and data management tools. The company’s products and outstanding customer service provide teachers and administrators with the resources necessary for teaching diverse student populations and fostering learning for all students.


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