The Pandemic’s Inequitable Impact on Student Learning

By: | 11/30/2021
Categories: Data Culture, Leadership

This is the first in a series of posts about our recent report on unfinished learning, Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021. Our goal is to provide a national perspective on unfinished learning so you can better understand your local needs and how to better address student learning in the coming years.

Since March 2020, educators have been trying to anticipate, assess, and quantify the pandemic’s impact on student learning. Given the data, we know that COVID-19 will have a long-term impact on learners. Our charge, then, is to use our findings to address long-standing inequities and help learners not just return to their pre-pandemic learning levels but to exceed them.

Read Our Featured Research on Unfinished Learning

Understanding the Data

Using data from the i-Ready Diagnostic assessment, our research team regularly analyzes results from approximately 10 million elementary and middle school learners nationwide. Our latest report, Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021, shows a significant number of learners were underprepared to read and learn math at grade level.

The data found that:

  • In reading, more students in nearly all grades are below grade level this year, particularly in Grades 2–3.

  • In math, more students in all grades are below grade level compared to historical fall averages.

  • Compared to last fall, students have made some improvements, particularly in math, whereas there are more mixed results in reading.

Although all students, on average, have exhibited unfinished learning, the pandemic has disproportionally affected students in schools serving mostly Black, Latino, and lower-income communities.

Below grade level reading graph.
Below grade level mathematics graph.

Read more about why we prefer to use the term unfinished learning to describe what others call “learning loss.”

Exacerbated Inequities

When the data reveals a stark disparity between students from different races, ethnicities, and income levels, it’s a call for us to address inequities.

Earlier Curriculum Associates research demonstrated that students in schools serving mostly Black, Latino, or lower-income communities were already behind, and in some cases, falling further behind, during the pandemic. There is a large body of research pointing to systemic inequities that contributed to these disparities long before the pandemic began (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Garcia & Weiss, 2017; O'Day & Smith, 2019; Reardon,  2011).

Understanding Student Learning shows that in fall 2021, schools serving mostly Black and Latino students have fewer on-grade level learners compared to schools serving mostly White students. Additionally, fewer learners in schools in lower-income zip codes are on grade level compared to their peers in schools in higher-income zip codes.

The research shows:

Grade 3 Students
Below Grade Level 

Reading Math
Schools >50% Black 55% 59%
Schools >50% Latino 48% 51%
Schools >50% White 29% 28%


Grade 3 Students
Below Grade Level 

Reading & Math
Lower-Income (<$50,000) ~50%
Higher-Income (>$50,000) ~25%



Grade 3 below grade level graph by demographic.
Grade 3 below grade level graph by income.

Our recently released report on where students took their Diagnostic (i.e., school, home) reveals additional disparities. As most schools reopened for in-person learning, students of color were more likely to be testing remotely during the 2020–2021 school year. While we do not know for certain where students were learning, we hypothesize that many of these students missed out on in-person learning opportunities and school-based resources and that that could have affected their growth trajectories. We expect to release further research on this soon.

Through today’s recovery efforts and increased attention toward the education sector, we have an opportunity to recalibrate our existing systems and turn this into a transformational moment. We know that educators remain committed to providing learning opportunities and supports for all students. We believe that with rigorous data paired with differentiated instructional techniques, supportive professional development, and harnessing available funds for innovative learning interventions, we can turn the tide to make learning more equitable for all students.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Unequal opportunity: race and education. Brookings Institute.

Garcia, E. & Weiss, E. (2017). Education inequalities at the school starting gate. Economic Policy Institute.

O' Day, J. & Smith, M. (2019). Opportunity for all: A framework for quality and equality in education. Harvard Education Press. 

Reardon, S. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor:
New evidence and possible explanation
. In G. Duncan and R. Murnane (Eds.) Whither opportunity (pp. 91–116) Russell Sage.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

Grants and Funding Hub

Curriculum Associates’ grants and funding team has assembled resources to help educators and administrators make sense of new federal funding sources, plan for summer school, and understand how our programs meet funding requirements. 

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