University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Early Research on Learning During COVID-19

In The View from the OEP on December 2, 2020 at 12:00 pm

We’ve all been wondering- how did COVID-19 disruptions impact students’ academic learning?

Yesterday, NWEA’s Collaborative for Student Growth released new research that found some good news! You can read more in the full brief here, but the takeaway is that there were not consistent declines in student achievement over the spring and summer.

Using data from nearly 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in fall 2020, the researchers examined three primary research questions:

  • Are students performing at lower levels this fall compared to last fall?
    • Reading held steady: In fall of 2020, students in grades 3-8 performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in fall 2019.
    • Math falls behind: In fall of 2020, students in grades 3-8 performed about 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math compared to same-grade students in fall 2019.
  • Did students demonstrate lower academic growth than typical since schools closed in March?
    • Students still demonstrated academic growth during COVID: In almost all grades, most students made some learning gains in both reading and math since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
    • Growth in reading scores was consistent with typical learning projections.
    • Gains in math were lower on average than in prior years, resulting in more students falling behind relative to their prior standing.
  • Were the early predictions of a COVID slide accurate?
    • NWEA’s earlier projections of a COVID slide were lower than actual performance for reading, but pretty spot on for math.


Although the news about student achievement and growth is better than we had feared, the researchers caution that many students that would typically take the MAP assessment in the fall are not appearing in the data. Student groups especially vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic were more likely to be missing. Without the information from these students, the understanding of how achievement this fall may differ across student groups is incomplete and the research may be underestimating the impacts of COVID-19. In addition, the research only includes students in grades 3-8, so the relative achievement of students in K-2 and high school is still unknown.

The research highlights a critical need for clear data to understand where students have fallen behind and to guide where additional resources and supports should be deployed to get them back on track. Here in Arkansas, many students complete an assessment in the fall, be it MAP or something else. We should collectively examine data from this fall to determine if the trends observed nationally are reflective for Arkansas’ students.

The reported declines in math achievement are particularly concerning for Arkansas students, as only one in three of our 4th graders scored at grade level on the most recent national assessment in mathematics. We should take this opportunity to think creatively about how students are organized for instruction in mathematics, and providing differentiated support for each student.

Arkansas leaders are continuing to support our schools, proposing in the FY22 budget the largest increase in education in more than a decade. It is our responsibility to ensure that the resources are being used effectively to support Arkansas students.

If you want to be a part of a collective (anonymous) analysis of Arkansas’ data, or if you want support interpreting your data- just reach out to us at oep@uark.edu.

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