Everyone knows that school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are having a serious negative impact on student achievement, and that this impact is sure to be larger for disadvantaged students than for others. However, how large will the impact turn out to be? This is not a grim parlor game for statisticians, but could have real meaning for policy and practice. If the losses turn out to be modest comparable to the “summer slide” we are used to (but which may not exist), then one might argue that when schools open, they might continue where they left off, and students might eventually make up their losses, as they do with summer slide. If, on the other hand, losses are very large, then we need to take emergency action.
Some researchers have used data from summer losses and from other existing data on, for example, teacher strikes, to estimate COVID losses (e.g., Kuhfeld et al., 2020). But now we have concrete evidence, from a country similar to the U.S. in most ways.
A colleague came across a study that has, I believe, the first actual data on this question. It is a recent study from Belgium (Maldonado & DeWitte, 2020) that assessed COVID-19 losses among Dutch-speaking students in that country.
The news is very bad.
The researchers obtained end-of-year test scores from all sixth graders who attend publicly-funded Catholic schools, which are attended by most students in Dutch-speaking Belgium. Sixth grade is the final year of primary school, and while schools were mostly closed from March to June due to COVID, the sixth graders were brought back to their schools in late May to prepare for and take their end-of primary tests. Before returning, the sixth graders had missed about 30% of the days in their school year. They were offered on-line teaching at home, as in the U.S.
The researchers compared the June test scores to those of students in the same schools in previous years, before COVID. After adjustments for other factors, students scored an effect size of -0.19 in mathematics, and -0.29 in Dutch (reading, writing, language). Schools serving many disadvantaged students had significantly larger losses in both subjects; inequality within the schools increased by 17% in mathematics and 20% in Dutch, and inequality between schools increased by 7% in math and 18% in Dutch.
There is every reason to expect that the situation in the U.S. will be much worse than that in Belgium. Most importantly, although Belgium had one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the world, it has largely conquered the disease by now (fall), and its schools are all open. In contrast, most U.S. schools are closed or partially closed this fall. Students are usually offered remote instruction, but many disadvantaged students lack access to technology and supervision, and even students who do have equipment and supervision do not seem to be learning much, according to anecdotal reports.
In many U.S. schools that have opened fully or partially, outbreaks of the disease are disrupting schooling, and many parents are refusing to send their children to school. Although this varies greatly by regions of the U.S., the average American student is likely to have missed several more effective months of in-person schooling by the time schools return to normal operation.
But even if average losses turn out to be no worse than those seen in Belgium, the consequences are terrifying, for Belgium as well as for the U.S. and other COVID-inflicted countries.
Effect sizes of -0.19 and -0.29 are very large. From the Belgian data on inequality, we might estimate that for disadvantaged students (those in the lowest 25% of socioeconomic status), losses could have been -0.29 in mathematics and -0.39 in Dutch. What do we have in our armamentarium that is strong enough to overcome losses this large?
In a recent blog, I compared average effect sizes from studies of various solutions currently being proposed to remedy students’ losses from COVID shutdowns: Extended school days, after-school programs, summer school, and tutoring. Only tutoring, both one-to-one and one-to-small group, in reading and mathematics, had an effect size larger than +0.10. In fact, there are several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring models with effect sizes of +0.40 or more, and averages are around +0.30. Research in both reading and mathematics has shown that well-trained teaching assistants using structured tutoring materials or software can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers as tutors. On the basis of these data, I’ve been writing about a “Marshall Plan” to hire thousands of tutors in every state to provide tutoring to students scoring far below grade level in reading and math, beginning with elementary reading (where the evidence is strongest).
I’ve also written about national programs in the Netherlands and in England to provide tutoring to struggling students. Clearly, we need a program of this kind in the U.S. And if our scores are like the Belgian scores, we need it as quickly as possible. Students who have fallen far below grade level cannot be left to struggle without timely and effective assistance, powerful enough to bring them at least to where they would have been without the COVID school closures. Otherwise, these students are likely to lose motivation, and to suffer lasting damage. An entire generation of students, harmed through no fault of their own, cannot be allowed to sink into failure and despair.
Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05
Maldonado, J. E., & DeWitte, K. (2020). The effect of school closures on standardized student test outcomes.Leuven, Belgium: University of Leuven.
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