COVID-19’s Impact on Student Learning: 4 Findings about Unfinished Learning from the 2020–2021 School Year

By: | 07/13/2021
Categories: Data Culture, Leadership

Just as we have for the fall and winter of the 2020–2021 school year, Curriculum Associates has compiled a report on student academic progress in reading and mathematics as shown by results from i-Ready Diagnostic, our research-backed, adaptive assessment program.

This post gives a quick overview of Academic Achievement at the End of the 2020–2021 School Year: Insights after More Than a Year of Disrupted Teaching and Learning. (For detailed information about our methodology, sample, and language, please read the full report.) Our latest analysis confirms what we saw emerge in fall and winter: Some of our youngest students and students who have historically been underserved have been impacted the most by school disruptions caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we highlight four specific findings from the data that we hope will help education leaders understand their districts’ data within a national context, which, in turn, will enable them to better address their students’ learning needs in the coming school year.

Finding 1: Fewer Students Are On Grade Level in Reading and Mathematics This Spring Compared to Historical Averages

Reading

In reading, there was a greater amount of unfinished learning in nearly all grade levels, particularly in Grades 1 and 2. The percentage of students who are ready for grade-level work decreased during the 2020–2021 school year relative to the historical average across all Grades 1–8. The largest decreases are in Grade 1 (13 percentage points lower) and Grade 2 (11 percentage points lower). Meanwhile, the percentage of students who are underprepared for grade-level work (i.e., two or more grade levels below where they need to be) increased for students in Grades 1–7, while Grade 8 remained flat.

Graph 1.1: On Grade Level, Reading

Graph showing percentage of students reaching on grade level reading in spring 2021 versus historical average.

Mathematics

In mathematics, the percentage of students who are ready for grade-level work decreased during the 2020–2021 school year relative to the historical average across all grades. Elementary Grades 1–5 and early middle school, Grade 6, showed the greatest amount of unfinished learning. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who are underprepared for grade-level work increased across all grades.

Graph 1.3: On Grade Level, Mathematics

Graph showing percentage of students reaching on grade level math in spring 2021 versus historical average.

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Finding 2: Fewer Students in Schools Serving Mostly Black or Latino Students Are On Grade Level Compared to Schools Serving Mostly White Students

To illustrate this finding, we are highlighting the results for Grade 3. In reading and mathematics, the percentage of Grade 3 students who are ready for grade-level work decreased relative to the historical average for students in the three demographic groups described below.

In reading, the decreases are larger for students in schools serving mostly Black students (10 percentage points) or Latino students (9 percentage points) than for students in schools serving mostly White students (5 percentage points). In mathematics, the decreases are also larger for students in schools serving mostly Black students (20 percentage points) or Latino students (19 percentage points) than for students in schools serving mostly White students (13 percentage points). The historical averages reveal inequities that predate the pandemic.

Graph 2.1: On Grade Level by Demographic Group: Grade 3, Reading and Mathematics

Graph showing percentage of students reaching grade level in reading and math in spring 2021 by demographic groups.
Research shows that more students have unfinished learning than in past years after more than a year of disrupted learning and teaching.

Finding 3: Fewer Students Attending Schools in Lower-Income Zip Codes Are On Grade Level Compared to Schools in Higher-Income Zip Codes

Across grade levels and subjects, the percentage of students who are ready for grade-level work decreased this winter relative to the historical average for students, regardless of income bracket. To illustrate this finding, we are once again highlighting the results for Grade 3.

In reading, the Grade 3 declines relative to the historical average were steeper for students in schools in zip codes where the median household income is below $50,000 annually (8 percentage points) compared with students in schools in zip codes where the median household income is between $50,000 and $75,000
(7 percentage points) and students in schools in zip codes where the median household income is greater than $75,000 (4 percentage points). This was also true for Grade 3 mathematics (16, 14, and 12 percentage points, respectively).

Graph 3.1: On Grade Level by Income: Grade 3, Reading and Mathematics

Graph showing percentage of third grade students reaching grade level in reading and math in spring 2021 by income groups.

Finding 4: Students Have Made Progress from Fall to Spring but Continue to Fall Behind Historical Performance in Most Grades

While we see some variability across subjects and grade levels, the majority of students in elementary school are not catching up from where they started behind in the fall in both reading and mathematics. In middle school, the percentage of students who were on grade level in fall and spring tracked closely to the historical average in reading. However, in middle school mathematics, students did not catch up from where they started behind in the fall.

In reading, the gaps between the current school year and the historical average have generally grown wider from fall to spring, with the exception of Grade 6, in which there was no difference at either time period. This increase was largest in Grade 1, in which the gap between the current school year and the historical average increased from 5% in the fall to 9% in the spring.

In mathematics, the gaps between the current school year and the historical average increased from fall to spring in Grades 1–3, decreased in Grades 4–6, and stayed the same in Grades 7–8. The largest increase was in Grade 1, in which the gap between the current school year and the historical average increased from 4% in the fall to 10% in the spring. The largest decrease was in Grade 5, in which the gap changed from 13% in the fall to 8% in the spring.

How Can We, as a Nation, Better Prepare All Students for Academic Success in School and Enable Future Generations to Reach Their Full Potential?

Educators’ efforts over the past 15 months have been extraordinary, and we know from conversations with special education teachers, district and school leaders, families, students, and others that they have made a difference.

Helping students recover from lost instructional time will require more extraordinary efforts, but with a tight focus on accelerating learning, culturally responsive teaching practices that engage students, equitable educational outcomes, and other best practices—as well as support from education partners—education leaders can help teachers and students meet the challenges of the new school year.

How did the pandemic affect student learning in 2020–2021?

Read the Research Team’s Analysis of Fall, Winter, and Spring i-Ready Diagnostic Results
Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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