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Pandemic learning loss: Why is it so hard to get kids caught up?

Policy makers and education leaders should take a close look at results of the Nation’s Report Card and other key data, be honest with families, and enact evidence-based recovery strategies.

The disruptions wrought by the pandemic were accompanied by widespread learning setbacks, even in states that saw students return quickly to in-person learning.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

My middle son, Sam, was in fourth grade when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the nation’s schools in March 2020.

He attended fifth grade in a hybrid model. At the time, my wife and I were grateful that he was with teachers and classmates a few hours a week. But it soon became clear that he was getting neither the benefits of fully in-person education nor those of a well-designed online learning program.

The first warning sign came on that year’s final report card. His math teacher reported: “Sam has mastered all of the fifth-grade content standards to which he has been exposed.” She neglected to say what share of the fifth-grade standards he simply hadn’t seen.


The second warning sign was his performance on a math placement test that he took when we enrolled him in a private school the next fall. His older brother, who attended the same public elementary school, had taken the same test three years earlier and been slotted into the highest-level math course available in sixth grade. Sam would not have the same opportunity.

New achievement results released last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, confirm that Sam’s experience was not unusual. Thirteen-year-olds tested in fall 2022 scored dramatically worse in reading and math than those who took the same tests on the eve of the pandemic in 2019. The losses were especially steep in math and for low-performing students.

The math results, scored on a scale of 0 to 500, showed the largest three-year decline in the more than 50 years the test has been administered, falling 9 points from 280 to 271. The average reading score dropped 4 points, from 260 in 2019. An average score of 256 was last seen in 1975.


The reading score declines of lower-performing students were not significantly different from those of their middle- and higher-performing peers. However, the math score declines ranged from 6 to 8 points for middle- and higher-performing students to 12 to 14 points for lower-performing students.

One might have hoped that, by late 2022, scores would have begun to recover from pandemic-related setbacks. Virtually all schools had been back in person for a full year by the time the tests were administered. School districts had by that time had two summers — and access to nearly $200 billion of federal aid — to help students catch up.

Yet the declines revealed by the latest results from the Nation’s Report Card are, if anything, larger than those seen for fourth- and eighth-grade students tested in 2022.

That pattern is consistent with evidence from other testing programs that shed light on the 2021-22 school year. Students resumed learning as schooling conditions returned to normal but at a pace that generally did not exceed their rate of progress prior to the pandemic, as would be needed to make up lost ground.

Why has it been so hard to get students caught up? A lack of financial resources is not the problem; school districts are awash in federal funds to support recovery efforts. Research from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research indicates that these efforts have been hampered by staffing shortages, scheduling challenges, and other implementation issues.

Engaging parents in recovery efforts has also been a challenge. When my colleagues and I surveyed US parents in May 2022, only 9 percent seemed to understand the problem. That small group acknowledged they were not confident that their child would “catch up” from COVID-related learning loss within a year or two. The rest of those surveyed were confident their child would catch up (48 percent) or perceived no learning loss in the first place (43 percent).


Sam’s experience is also instructive. As a result of the pandemic, he’s now taking different math courses covering different topics than he would have otherwise. Getting him back on track in that key subject will take more than just tutoring on material he’s now studying or a bit of extra instruction here and there. It will require a non-incremental intervention, like doubling up on math class for a year or taking an entire course in the subject over the summer. That’s a tall order — for both schools and families.

I try not to worry about Sam. He loves his new school — a change we were in a position to make but which likely wouldn’t be possible for many families. Even before the pandemic, the school provided rising freshmen the opportunity to take an additional math course the summer before they enter high school. We’ll decide as a family whether Sam should take advantage of that opportunity next year.

I am worried about the tens of millions of American students who don’t have the same advantages he has and whose parents may not be aware of the learning gaps the students face. To meet their needs, policy makers and education leaders should take a close look at NAEP results and other key data, be honest with families, and enact evidence-based recovery strategies. For many students, that will probably mean finding ways to increase instructional time, whether through high-dosage tutoring or supplemental programming during school vacations and over the summer.


We have to act swiftly. Sam and his peers are rapidly moving toward high school. Before we know it, they’ll be thinking about what comes afterward. They’re all capable of doing great things, but it is up to us to provide the solid academic foundation on which those bright futures rest.

Martin R. West is academic dean and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.