Online Study of Reading Software Shows Widening Achievement Gap

Recent research by the NWEA projected major declines in student learning, particularly in math, but also reading. A new study has found that learning loss for new readers could be tracking as high as 28 percent by June 1, 2020 and up to 49 percent by the end of summer. According to the research organizers, this is the first published study of the current and predicted impact of closures on learning using actual performance measure before and after U.S. schools closed from the COVID-19.

The study was based on data provided by Achieve3000, a reading platform that measures student performance using algorithms tied to the Lexile Framework. Researchers included Successful Practices Network (SPN), Center for College & Career Readiness and Achieve3000. Nonprofit SPN provides schools with resources and assistance to achieve success by design. Nonprofit Center for College & Career Readiness works on maximizing individual learner engagement through the use of neuroscience. Achieve3000 is an education technology company that produces literacy programs.

The project analyzed real-time data for 1.6 million students in 1,364 districts, all of which were doing remote instruction. Researchers found that students are on track to lose nearly half (49 percent) of their potential reading growth by the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

On top of that, the achievement gap between students from lower- and higher-income schools could widen by up to 18 percent as a worst-case scenario.

Other findings included these:

  • 76 percent of schools showed decreased usage of the reading program after they closed; the number of students overall who logged in dropped by 43 percent and the share finishing at least one lesson declined by 44 percent.

  • Struggling readers were projected to fall an additional six percent behind their peers.

  • Some districts are succeeding with online learning. In about 24 percent of school systems, use of the program was "close to or on par" with usage before the schools closed.

In the figure here, the solid blue line represents actual growth for active users of the Achieve3000 software before school closures. The solid gray line shows the expected growth for students who weren't using the literacy program. The dashed blue line shows the potential growth possible if schools hadn't been forced to close. The yellow-orange dashed line shows the "halted growth" for non-active users after schools closed. The red dashed line shows the expected halted growth for students not engaged in a literacy program during school closures. The green dashed line shows the potential summer slide. The two vertical bars towards the right show the "unrealized potential gain," how much students will lose between the combination of school closures (the first bar) and summer slide (the second bar).

The report offered a number of recommendations for educators, based on the trends.

  • Begin planning for next year. It's possible schools will have to close once more for the fall or winter. The report suggested that schools "begin planning for improvements that can be implemented" before school opens again.

  • Use summer to catch up. Find ways to reach out to students, the report advised, to help them begin school next year where they would have been this year if the pandemic hadn't flared.

  • Work on your online instructional skills. "Virtual learning is now a career skill that needs to be mastered by both educators and students," the report noted. Therefore, teachers need to train on how to use a "technology-enabled approach to all teaching and learning."

The report is openly available on the Achieve3000 website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.