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Data shows students are progressing again as many return to in-person schooling

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Teachers, caregivers and students have had a lot to worry about over the past two-plus years of dealing with COVID-19, trying to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy while trying to keep learning on track, especially after months of distance learning in much of the country, followed by constant disruptions and absences. Many are worried that students haven't been making progress or couldn't make up for lost time. Now there's some new data about that from the school year that just ended, and Jill Barshay is here with us to tell us what it says. Jill Barshay is a writer at The Hechinger Report. That's an independent newsroom based at Teachers College at Columbia University. She writes the Proof Points column about education, research and data. Jill Barshay, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

JILL BARSHAY: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So we talked last October when we first started to get information about the effect of distance learning. We knew then that many students were not hitting the same milestones as they had pre-pandemic. So what do we know now? Have students made up for what they missed?

BARSHAY: This is a good news, bad news report. The good news is that it was kind of like a normal year. Despite the omicron and delta variants, students were learning like they usually do before the pandemic. The bad news is, they're still far behind.

MARTIN: So this is something you said in your report that made sense to me. You wrote a good analogy is a cross-country road trip. Imagine that students were traveling at 55 miles an hour, ran out of gas and started walking instead. Now they're back in their cars and humming along at 55 miles an hour again. Some are traveling at 60 miles an hour, but they're still far away from the destination that they would have arrived at if they hadn't run out of gas. And so is that what educators mean when they talk about learning loss?

BARSHAY: Exactly. Some people call it missed learning or lost learning, but this is what we're talking about, how the students would have been much farther ahead. So, for example, third-graders now are scoring much lower. Their reading achievement is much lower today than it was for third-graders back in 2018 or 2019 before the pandemic.

MARTIN: Well, you know - I want to mention that, that this report was released this month by the research nonprofit NWEA. It used data from reading and math assessments of more than 8 million students in third through eighth grade. You just mentioned third-graders. Did some students struggle more than other students at particular grade levels? And why might that be?

BARSHAY: Right. Third-graders this past year, they were in first grade when the pandemic first hit. So they were just learning to read. Their pace of learning was pretty good last year, but they were the ones that were still traveling 55 miles an hour. They weren't traveling any faster, really. They didn't make any catch up. So they're just as far behind today as they were a year or two ago.

MARTIN: And what about middle-schoolers? I understand that middle-schoolers particularly struggled. Why might that be?

BARSHAY: This was the most concerning part of the report. Middle-schoolers made no forward progress. And in fact, the students who just finished eighth grade, they deteriorated more. They did not learn at a normal pace. Their learning losses got even bigger. So for them, some of them who might have been 19 weeks behind, they're maybe 23 weeks behind now. And when they enter ninth grade next year, there's so much catch up for them to do. You asked about why, and that's a big mystery. People don't know exactly what's going on. It might be because they're teens and the pandemic hit during their adolescence. And there's a really critical time in their social development. And there may be some links we don't understand between social development and academic progress.

MARTIN: Well, you did say that there was some good news, so let's hear that.

BARSHAY: The two areas of good news is that upper elementary kids seem to be catching up quite well. For example, students who just finished fourth grade, they made up a third of their learning loss. So if they continue at this rate, they'll be fully caught up in one to two years. And also in math, sixth-graders caught up super well, and they should be fully caught up in one to two years if they continue to catch up at this pace. Another bright sign is that low-income kids were catching up at the same rate as high-income kids. They - they're really rebounding well. The problem is, is they were further behind before the pandemic hit. They lost more ground during the pandemic. So it's going to take them a lot longer to catch up.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, the data - as I mentioned, the data you looked at analyzed assessments of more than 8 million students in the U.S. But over the course of the pandemic, just, you know, hearing from teachers and educators and school officials, anecdotally, a lot of people have talked about students who just fell off the grid for any number of reasons. They didn't have the technology to join class online. They didn't have supervision at home that they needed. We - we've even heard from school districts where kids just disappeared and didn't come back. Do we know anything about students in those situations? I mean, did they make it back to schools? And is there any way to capture their experience?

BARSHAY: I asked about that, Michel. And the students who were off the grid last year, we didn't even have their test results, so we were afraid they lost even more learning. I asked about that. For now, they seem to be back into this data. They had a very good distribution of low-income students and of different races and ethnicities that looked a lot like 2019 before the pandemic. So we think we have these students back in the data.

MARTIN: Well, that leads me to a question, though. I mean, are there - you know, recognizing that we're speculating down the road, is there legitimate concern about the long-term effect of students not catching up? I mean, recognizing that this was a global pandemic and that countries, you know, all over the world were affected by this, many of them had, you know, very severe lockdowns, more severe than in the United States for a fact - in point of fact. But do we see a knock-on effect of this loss of learning? Do you know what I mean? I don't know if, you know, if that's something that you can capture, but what do you think?

BARSHAY: Economists are very worried about kids not catching up. Because as these middle-schoolers who are behind go through high school, they may get discouraged. And they're expecting to see more students drop out, fewer students go to college, fewer students graduating from college, and that has trickle-on effects in our economy. There's one estimate that we might see today's generation of students lose $2 trillion in lifetime earnings. And there's another estimate that the whole U.S. economy could lose $128 billion - that's with a B - a year. So it's something that could affect all of us.

MARTIN: That was Jill Barshay. She's a writer at The Hechinger Report. That's an independent newsroom based at Teachers College at Columbia University. Jill Barshay, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this information.

BARSHAY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.