NWEAAs the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic closes schools across the nation, education systems are scrambling to meet the needs of schools, families, and 55.1 million students during these unprecedented times. The economic impacts and trauma of recent events will also have far reaching effects that will likely exacerbate long-standing opportunity gaps. While it is difficult to speculate on what missing months of school may mean for student achievement, research on seasonal learning and summer learning loss can offer some insights that can help educators, policy makers, and families understand, plan for, and address some potential impacts of this extended pause in classroom instruction when students return to school.

Seasonal learning research allows researchers to compare student learning patterns when school is in versus out of session. While there is some controversy about the magnitude of summer learning loss three trends are consistent across seasonal learning research findings: achievement typically slows or declines over the summer months, declines tend to be steeper for math than for reading, and the extent (proportionally) of loss increases in the upper grades.

To provide preliminary estimates of the potential impacts of the extended pause of academic instruction during the coronavirus crisis, we leverage research on summer loss and use a national sample of over five million students in grades 3–8 who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in 2017–2018. We examined how the observed typical average growth trajectory by grade for students who completed a standard length school year compares to projections under two scenarios for the closures: a COVID-19 slide, in which students showed patterns of academic setbacks typical of summers throughout an extended closure and COVID-19 slowdown, in which students maintained the same level of academic achievement they had when schools were closed (modeled for simplicity as March 15, with school resuming in fall).

We estimate COVID-19 projections of the average academic growth trajectory by grade and for mathematics (Figure 1) and reading (Figure 2). In a typical year (shown as solid lines), average academic growth varies across the academic year (shown as the curved lines seen in some grades) and generally declines from the last day of school through the summer, with steeper declines in mathematics than in reading. The average within-year growth follows a quadratic trajectory across the 2017–2018 student samplex, while the dashed line shows projected trajectories under a COVID slowdown, and dotted lines show projected trajectories under a COVID slide. Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.

This brief written by Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa was published in April of 2020; almost one year later some students still have not reached the end of the slide. Many schools have been unable to resume regular in-person instruction on a consistent basis. With the hope of a return to normalcy on the horizon, now is the time to take action to combat the learning loss caused by the pandemic. For adolescents, this means it’s time to take charge of the learning process by becoming independent learners.

Troubled Waters

Students were forced into a situation unlike any they have encountered previously. While navigating these uncharted waters of learning during a pandemic, many adolescents were hit with waves of academic struggles and obstacles to effective learning. Searching for a life raft, students opened their independent learning toolbox, but most were bare. Most were void of the important tools, skills, and strategies that allow students to ride the waves and ultimately succeed as independent learners. The learning loss experienced during the pandemic has proved to us that the responsibility of learning must be equally shared by teachers and students. Students must be taught the skills and strategies of independent learning so that they are well-equipped to excel in any learning environment or situation. Research has proven that facility and practice of executive functioning skills and critical thinking is a greater predictor of student success than IQ. Students who develop the skills of independent learning are better suited to adapt and succeed when obstacles arise.

Pathways to Indepenent Learning

It is imperative that students develop the skills of self-advocacy, communication, and critical thinking to fill their independent learning toolbox with the tools necessary to take charge of the learning process. They need to have the ability to be self-aware in order to know: their specific needs; what help will support those needs; how to communicate those needs to teachers and parents; and how to develop a deeper understanding of new information. These skills will allow students to become better problem-solvers and build upon other essential life skills. Now is the time for students to become the captain of their own learning ship and successfully navigate the Pathways to Independent Learning. Click on the image below to learn more about how students can become independent learners.