COVID-19 Response

After Campus Closures, More Students Began School Year Below Grade Level

An analysis of early assessment data found that between a quarter and a third of students began the 2020-2021 school year unprepared for on-grade level instruction in reading and math (28 percent and 29 percent, respectively). And compared with the historical average of the previous three school years, more students began the latest school year behind grade level, especially in math. Yet, in reading, students were doing better in fall 2020 than the previous average in certain grade levels, including those from Black, Indigenous and People of color (BIPOC) and lower-income families.

After Campus Closures, More Students Began School Year Below Grade Level

The proportion of students placing two or more grade levels below in reading. Source: "Understanding Student Needs: Early Results from Fall Assessments" from Curriculum Associates

The results were developed by Curriculum Associates, an education technology company that produces instructional materials and assessments, and shared in a recent research brief. Each fall K-8 students in schools using the company's i-Ready Learning instructional tools take assessments in reading and math to help teachers personalize the learning pathways for each child.

After Campus Closures, More Students Began School Year Below Grade Level

The share of students placing two or more grade levels below in math. Source: "Understanding Student Needs: Early Results from Fall Assessments" from Curriculum Associates

"Understanding Student Needs: Early Results from Fall Assessments" used the company's earliest available fall 2020 i-Ready Diagnostic scores to examine four questions, all tied to whether students were placing below grade level compared to previous school years:

  • By subject;

  • By grade level;

  • By race and ethnicity; and

  • By median annual household income.

In each scenario, "below grade level" actually meant "below two or more grade levels."

Overall, while 27 percent of students placed below grade level in reading on the fall diagnostic for 2017–2018, 2018– 2019 and 2019–2020--the "historic" school years--in fall 2020, the total was 28 percent. For math, the historic share was 23 percent, while it was 29 percent for this school year.

A drilldown of the data by grade level found that a smaller share of students performed below grade level in grades 5, 6, 7 and 8 after campus closures compared to the historical count. The proportion of students reading below grade level dropped by one percentage point for students in grades 5-7 and by two percentage points for students in grade 8. However, the share of students in grades 2 and 3 reading below grade level grew by six and five percentage points, respectively.

For math the news showed no promising signs. Every grade saw an increase in the percentage of students who placed below grade level. The change was highest for students in grades 2 and 3, which saw a rise of 10 percentage points and nine percentage points, respectively, for those placing below grade level.

What the race and ethnicity analysis found was that in grade 3, where performance is highly predictive of high school outcomes, in schools with higher proportions of BIPOC students (more than 50 percent of the population), historic trends continued: Larger percentages of students began the school year below grade level in reading, and that was no different for fall 2020. In fact, the share grew, from 34 percent to 41 percent. For math, it was the same. Schools with a higher proportion of BIPOC students saw the number of students starting school below grade level increase more dramatically (by 12 percentage points, rising from 32 percent to 44 percent) than schools with fewer BIPOC students.

Schools with a greater proportion of low-income households (those earning less than $50,000) saw similar trends. Historically, schools in lower-income zip codes have seen more students start the school year below grade level than schools in higher-income zip codes. In that pivotal grade 3, overall, the percentage of students placing below grade-level in reading increased by a greater amount in lower-income schools (by five percentage points) versus higher-income schools (three percentage points). For math, the story was the same; there while 39 percent of third-graders in lower-income schools (a 10-percentage point increase) placed below grade level, 25 percent did for higher-income schools (a six-point rise).

Curriculum Associates suggested that more research was needed to understood the "disproportionate impact" of remote learning on students, especially those in BIPOC populations or attending schools in low-income zip codes.

"The shift to remote learning has magnified already pervasive inequities for millions of school children," said Kristen Huff, the company's vice president of assessment and research, in a statement. "But it has also created an opportunity to explore a range of important research questions. COVID-19 has had far-reaching--and in many ways poorly understood--implications for our students. This analysis takes an important first step toward making sense of outcomes in an unprecedented environment and charting a path forward."

The report, with more complete results, is openly available on the Curriculum Associates website.

The company has also released an additional report, "Overcoming the Digital Divide," to share what it has learned from "exemplar" schools that were beating the odds.

About the Author

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