While test scores fall, schools try to curb learning loss

PROVO, UT – AUGUST 13: A teacher sets up her classroom at Freedom Preparatory Academy as they begin to prepare to restart school after it was closed in March due to COVID-19 on August 13, 2020 in Provo, Utah. The school is planning to have students return on August 18 for five days a week instruction, but with reduced hours during the day. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — Dubbed “the nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found a substantial decline in math and reading scores at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels between 2019 and 2022.

Many observers believe the nationwide declines were due to the turbulent school environment that has existed since the start of the pandemic, including prolonged school closures and the use of remote learning.

In the face of results from NAEP and other state and local assessments showing that many students are falling behind, school officials across the country are focusing on interventions aimed at boosting achievement.


Earlier this year, a group of researchers studying the impact of remote and hybrid learning on American students found that remote learning substantially widened academic achievement gaps.

Many public officials anticipated this learning loss and began funding measures designed to help students catch up. Some states, such as Texas, began investing more in tutoring programs.

Ray Hart, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which works with urban school districts, pointed to Dallas hiring additional tutors as one intervention that has been helpful.

Those tutors were hired with the assistance of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds provided by federal COVID-19 relief.

While it’s too early to say whether these programs are effectively addressing pandemic-era learning loss specifically, studies have generally shown that one-on-one or small-group tutoring can boost both math and reading achievement.

Not all tutoring is equal, however. Education specialists typically emphasize that what is most effective is what is called high-dose or high-impact tutoring, which involves small groups (three students or fewer`) meeting with tutors at least three times a week for at least half an hour.


Schools are also adding more mandatory instructional time. In the 2021-2022 school year, the city of Atlanta added an extra 30 minutes to the elementary school day.

Educational researchers have generally found that more instructional time is beneficial for students, but it’s not clear whether these efforts have succeeded in mitigating learning loss in the short term.

Some schools also looked into other ways to expand instructional time.

“Schools really dove into getting students additional supports, additional time. Quite often that occurred in the after-school space, but it also occurred during school,” Hart said. “A number of school districts around the country, for example, bought out teacher planning time. Meaning that they essentially paid teachers an additional stipend to work with students during their planning periods.”


Even prior to the turbulence of the past couple of years, education researchers have worried about what has sometimes been called “summer slide,” where students fall behind over the summer months they aren’t in school.

Schools have often responded to this by offering summer programs for students who choose to opt into them.

Those programs have been operating with renewed urgency since the onset of the pandemic, focusing on the challenges that students face now.

Horizons Atlanta, which works with low-income students over the summer, had to retool its summer program to focus more on social and emotional development following months where students had limited interaction with their peers.

Manistee Area Public Schools in Michigan tackled summer slide by working with a local nonprofit to send elementary school kids books to read over the summer. The last book each student received included prompts to spur them to write their own story. ESSER funds helped finance the program.

The RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, looked at summer programs at five urban school districts and found that after two back-to-back summers, students who had high attendance in these programs — which they defined as attending 20 days or more during the summer — did better than their colleagues in areas such as math and English.

The organization noted in a 2019 review that many summer programs have not been rigorously studied enough to make conclusions about their effectiveness.


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