Black, Hispanic and poor students suffered most when Covid shut schools down, a report finds

A recent report offers a glimpse into how the coronavirus pandemic has affected students’ academic performance.

Overall, the findings paint an optimistic picture. But for Black and Hispanic students, as well as those in schools that serve low-income populations, the situation is more concerning — with marginalized students falling further behind in reading and math.

The report comes from NWEA, a nonprofit organization that measures the growth and performance of students from grades pre-K to 12. Researchers examined how students this year performed relative to their peers last year, whether they saw academic growth since the pandemic began and how their test scores compared to earlier projections.

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The study’s authors looked at test scores from this fall for about 4.4 million public school students in grades 3-8. The data was collected from about 8,000 schools across 46 states.

On the whole, students fared better in reading and math than researchers had predicted they would in April, providing some reason for hope. Still, there’s cause for worry, too.

Black and Hispanic students fared worse in reading

Most students performed similarly in reading compared to those in the same grades this time last year, the researchers found. But Black and Hispanic students in upper elementary grades saw small drops.

Despite only modest declines, researchers caution that the data is incomplete.

Students who didn’t take the MAP Growth assessment, the test NWEA used to track progress and performance, are disproportionately from marginalized backgrounds. That includes Black and Hispanic students, lower-performing students and those from schools in high-poverty areas. And it means the disparities across racial and class lines could be greater than we know.

“We do want to caution that the fact that we’re not seeing very big differences right now could underestimate the gaps that may be forming for the students who are fully disengaged from school and missing from our data,” said Megan Kuhfeld, the lead author of the study.

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Kuhfeld said her team can’t determine why exactly those students didn’t take the test this year. They could have been absent that day, or opted out because they were sick or didn’t have a reliable internet connection. They could be attending a school that is no longer administering the test because of the technological challenges the pandemic posed. Or perhaps they’re no longer enrolled in school at all.

All students saw declines in math

Students of all racial groups performed worse in math compared to their peers last year, with scores about 5 to 10 percentage points lower, according to the report.

And though students in almost all grades 3-8 are showing growth in reading and math from the time the pandemic began, they improved in math at a lower rate on average than their peers in previous years.

Still, the findings suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic and the learning disruptions it caused have been less detrimental than researchers had expected. Students performed better in both reading and math than NWEA projected in an April report.

The educational assessment company Renaissance Learning, Inc. reported similar findings to NWEA’s report.

Renaissance reviewed test scores from more than five million students in 1st through 8th grades. It found that reading scores on average were one percentage point below typical levels, while math scores fell about seven points.

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But again, Black, Hispanic and Native Americans students were hit harder, as were students in rural areas and at schools that serve high poverty populations.

It could be years before we know the true educational toll of the pandemic — and the effects could be long-lasting, Kuhfeld said. She added that educators and policymakers need to identify vulnerable students and make sure they’re getting the support that they need.

“Based on these findings, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic,” she said. “But this is a marathon and we know that teachers are feeling really overwhelmed and burned out. This is an ongoing experience that kids and we all are living through right now.”

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