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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Students are catching up in math, reading -- but gaps are wider

Reading and math scores are on their way up, reports the Education Recovery Scorecard. On average, students in grades three through eight lost an average of half a grade level in math, one third of a grade in reading in the first two years of the pandemic. From spring of 2022 to spring of 2023, they recovered about a third of the loss in math, one quarter in reading.

Of course, that leaves most behind pre-pandemic achievement. And "achievement gaps between rich and poor districts are even wider now" than before the pandemic, write Stanford and Harvard researchers who analyzed the data.

A few states have caught up to pre-pandemic achievement levels: Alabama is ahead in math, Louisiana, Illinois and Mississippi are ahead in reading.

In Oregon, scores continued to decline in 2022-23 in both math and reading.

"Some children may never catch up and could enter adulthood without the full set of skills they need to succeed in the work force and life," report Claire Cain Miller, Sarah Mervosh and Francesca Paris for the New York Times.

Remember that "catching up" means returning to pre-pandemic achievement, which already was leaving many disadvantaged students unprepared for success.

"School closures, though not the only driver of pandemic losses, were a major factor," the Times reports. "Schools in poor communities stayed remote for longer in the 2020-21 school year, and students suffered bigger declines when they did."

The pace of learning is about the same now, but students in poor districts have much farther to go. "The typical rich district is about a fifth of a grade level behind where it was in 2019," analysis found. The typical poor district is nearly half a grade behind.

Racial gaps also grew: Black and Hispanic students fell farther behind white students.

The $122 billion federal aid package gave poorer districts "about $6,200 per student in aid, compared with $1,350 for the most affluent districts," report Miller, Mervosh and Paris. Only 20 percent had to be spent on learning.

Weakley County, Tenn., a lower-income and mostly white rural district, allocated more than three-fourths and saw math and reading scores return to pre-pandemic levels.

Its main focus was a tutoring program — students who are behind meet with experienced tutors in groups of three, twice a week. The district also hired instructional coaches, social workers and educational assistants who teach small groups in classrooms. “If you ask a teacher and say, ‘In a perfect world, if I have $30,000, what would you like me to buy?’ every teacher would say, ‘Another person in this classroom to help,’” said Betsi Foster, assistant director of schools.

In California's Delano Union school district, which serves mostly poor Hispanic students, staffers made daily visits to students with poor attendance. Absenteeism, a growing problem in most of the country, fell to less than 10 percent in Delano, down from 29 percent. Scores returned to the pre-pandemic level.

Fewer achievers in the Covid generation may take advanced math and science and become engineers, analysts say. "Students in the vast middle — some who may otherwise have become nurses or electricians, for example — could lose opportunities to establish middle-class lives," write the Times reporters. Lower achievers -- many attending school only occasionally -- are unlikely to have the skills or work habits to hold down low-wage jobs.


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