What We’ve Learned about Unfinished Learning at Midyear

By: | 03/31/2021
Categories: Data Culture, Distance Learning, Instruction, Leadership

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago, educators have expressed concerns that inequities in remote learning and the digital divide, coupled with emotional and financial struggles caused by the pandemic, would result in unprecedented “learning loss”—or, as Curriculum Associates prefers to say for reasons of accuracy and equity, unfinished learning. Unfortunately, our midyear research indicates that educators’ instincts were right.

In Curriculum Associates’ newly released report What We’ve Learned about Unfinished Learning, our Research team members share their analysis of winter 2020–2021 results from the i-Ready Diagnostic, our standards-based, adaptative assessment.

In short, the results from 1.1 million students who took the Diagnostic for Reading and 1.2 million students who took the Diagnostic for Mathematics show that there is more unfinished learning to address this year than in a typical school year. Fewer students are prepared for grade-level work than at this point in prior years, and more students are Two or More Grade Levels Below their actual grade than in prior years.

Here are our other key findings:

1. Unfinished learning in Reading is greater this winter compared to historical averages, especially for students in early elementary grades.

The percentage of students placing On Grade Level by midyear in Reading is down by 10 percentage points in Grades 1–2 and by six percentage points in Grade 3 from the historical average. The differences between this year’s and prior years’ results in Grades 4–8 are not as dramatically lower and range from one to four percentage points below the historical average.

Graph 1.1: On Grade Level, Reading

Graph showing on-grade level Diagnostic results for reading.

How to Read the Graphs in This Post

Close-up of third grade resultsWhen the On Grade Level bar is taller for historical data and shorter for current-year data, it means there are fewer students ready for grade-level work this year relative to past years.
Graph key for on-grade level data.

Close-up of third grade resultsWhen the Below Grade Level bar is shorter for historical data and taller for current-year data, it means there are more students unprepared for
grade-level work this year relative to past years.
Graph key for below-grade level data.

2. Unfinished learning in Mathematics is greater this winter compared to historical averages.

The percentage of students placing On Grade Level in Mathematics by midyear is down by eight to 16 percentage points in Grades 1–6, five percentage points in Grade 7, and two percentage points in Grade 8. We see the biggest performance difference in Grade 4, in which students’ scores are lower by 16 percentage points relative to prior years.

Graph 1.3: On Grade Level, Mathematics

Graph showing on-grade level Diagnostic results for math.

See the data and graphs for students who were underprepared for grade-level content in Reading and Mathematics.

3. Unfinished learning in both Reading and Mathematics is greater for students in schools serving majority Black and Latino students than in schools that serve a majority White student body.

When we look at students who are unprepared for grade-level work (i.e., those placing Two or More Grade Levels Below where they should be), we see more unfinished learning for students in schools that serve a majority Black and Latino student body compared to students in schools that serve a majority White student body.

For example, the percentage point increase of Grade 3 students with unfinished learning in Mathematics in schools serving a majority Latino or Black student body is double and nearly triple that, respectively, of schools serving a majority White student body, relative to prior years. We see a similar trend in Reading.

Graph 2.2: Below Grade Level by Demographic Groups: Grade 3 Reading and Mathematics

Graph showing i-Ready winter Diagnostic Grade 3 below-grade level results by demographic groups.

See the data and graphs for students who were ready for
grade-level content in Reading and Mathematics by demographic group in the full report.

4. Unfinished learning is greater for students in schools located in lower-income zip codes than for students in higher-income zip codes.

Across grade levels and subjects, the percentage of students who are ready for grade-level work has decreased this winter relative to the historical average for students, regardless of income bracket. The declines are larger for Mathematics than Reading, though within subjects the declines are relatively stable across all three income groups (i.e., median household annual income is below $50,000, between $50,000 and $70,000, or greater than $75,000). In Mathematics, the percentage point difference is 12 or 13 for each of the three income groups, and in Reading, the percentage point difference ranges from four to seven.

When we look at students who are underprepared for grade-level work (i.e., those placing Two or More Grade Levels Below where they should be), we see that students in schools located in lower-income zip codes have more unfinished learning than students in schools located in higher-income zip codes. The percentage point drops relative to the historical average are steeper in both Reading and Mathematics for students in lower-income schools than for students in higher-income schools. For example, in Reading, the percentage point increase of Grade 3 students in lower-income schools (i.e., less than $50,000) with unfinished learning is almost triple that of higher-income schools (i.e., more than $75,000), relative to prior years. We see a similar trend in Mathematics.

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

Graph showing i-Ready winter Diagnostic below grade level results by income.

5. It’s too early to tell if students are catching up after starting behind in fall 2020.

In some subjects and grade levels, the difference between the current school year and the historical average increased from fall to winter, and in some subjects and grade levels, the difference decreased. When looking at the percentage of students who are ready for grade-level work, a decrease in the differences indicates that students are catching up from where they started behind in the fall. An increase in the differences indicates that students are not catching up from where they started behind in the fall. Given the variability we saw across subjects and grade levels, we do not want to draw a firm conclusion at midyear. We will certainly be following the data into spring and will report on what we find at the end of the 2020–2021 school year.

See the data and graphs for fall to winter changes in Reading and Mathematics in the full report.

Final Thoughts

It is important to note that this analysis and the findings we reported are based on a population of students who tested in school. When we looked at the remote-testing data, we found more variability in terms of both scores and test administration data, such as test duration, number of testing sessions, and number of devices used. For this reason, we focused most of our findings on the in-school testing population as it is the fairest basis of comparison to a typical school year. Unfortunately, this means the reality of unfinished learning could be more concerning than we’re able to report at the moment, because our early winter analysis does not account for students who took Diagnostics remotely. We know from our fall and winter Diagnostic research that schools in which students took the Diagnostic remotely were more likely to serve majority Black and Latino student populations and be located in urban areas, and schools in which students tested in school were more likely to serve a majority of White students and are more likely to be in towns and rural areas.

What We've Learned about Unfinished Learning examines findings from winter 2021 i-Ready Diagnostic data and compares results to previous years, shedding light on the severity of unfinished learning.

Read the Research

Notes on Our Research Process

Our Research team arrived at these conclusions by comparing Grades 1–8 winter 2020–2021 Reading and Mathematics i-Ready Diagnostic placement levels to average performances of the three previous winter 
i-Ready Diagnostics (referred to as the “historical average”).

In order to have a fair basis of comparison for this analysis, we only included students who tested in school during winter 2020–2021, between November 16, 2020, and March 2, 2021. The final analytic sample consisted of 1,159,733 students in Grades 1–8 in the Diagnostic for Reading analysis and 1,291,018 students in Grades 1–8 in the Diagnostic for Mathematics analysis.

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Shenique Mens-Smith

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