The impact of years of COVID-19 pandemic learning disruptions is coming into focus, and the picture is grim. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or “The Nation’s Report Card,” some two decades of progress have been wiped out. Average math scores for fourth and eighth graders in 2022 fell by five and eight points, respectively, compared with 2019 levels, while average reading scores fell by three points.
One point on the NAEP scale represents roughly three weeks of an academic school year, according to Andrew Ho, a Harvard professor who served on the board that administers the assessments.1 By that calculation, students in 2022 were on average about 15 to 24 weeks behind in math and nine weeks behind in reading compared with 2019, or a quarter to half a school year behind.2
If student performance improvement follows historical prepandemic trends, it could take decades for students to fully catch up. But resources are available to help students recover more quickly. The federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) allocates $190 billion to the nation’s schools to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. How these funds are deployed will likely pivot on the unique needs of students within each state and district, because the COVID-19 pandemic did not impact every part of the country equally. Students in some areas are only a few weeks behind, while others are nearly a year behind. Initial recovery efforts are also in different stages. To date, some states have spent less than 20 percent of their share of ESSER funds (across both state and district spending)—placing them at risk of leaving funding on the table. Others have already spent over half of their share.3
Although many of the decisions affecting education are made at the local or district level, states do have an important role to play—by understanding the situation across the districts in their jurisdiction and supporting recovery initiatives. Below is a breakdown of pandemic-related learning loss and ESSER fund deployment at the state level. Data is derived from multiple sources including NAEP assessments, pandemic schooling modality, prepandemic school funding, as well as ESSER allocations and spending to date.
If student performance improvement follows historical prepandemic trends, it could take decades for students to fully catch up. But resources are available to help students recover more quickly.
Supporting efforts to help students catch up
While 90 percent of ESSER funds go directly to LEAs (mostly districts) and many of the day-to-day decisions affecting students are made by districts, state leaders can consider three strategic steps to help support districts in their efforts to help students catch up: (1) assess current learning performance and recovery efforts across their state; (2) group districts according to the degree of support needed; and (3) engage a variety of mutually reinforcing levers at the state level to support districts.
Levers available to SEAs include the following:
- Putting policies in place. For example, 28 states have passed some form of Science of Reading mandates4 requiring high-quality instructional materials or teacher professional development aligned to standards.
- Boosting financial resources for districts. Additional funding could be allocated to districts that are advancing priority initiatives, in addition to the 90 percent of ESSER funds already allocated to LEAs—either from the ESSER state set-aside or other state funding sources.
- Providing information for districts to aid learning loss recovery. States could support districts by providing tool kits and how-to guides for districts—for example, on implementing effective tutoring programs.
- Enhancing technical supports for districts. States could fund communities of practice or direct technical assistance to districts through community partners or technical-assistance providers. These providers could help groups of districts strategically allocate ESSER dollars or accelerate priority initiatives such as tutoring or summer school.
- Delivering services directly to districts. Occasionally, states can also directly purchase services for districts. For example, some states have purchased formative assessment or digital instructional software to support consistency across the state and capture economies of scale through state-brokered vendor negotiations.
With approximately two years left before remaining ESSER funds must be spent, states can play an important role in supporting districts by ensuring these funds deliver maximum impact and help students across the country overcome pandemic-related challenges, placing them on track for the bright futures they all deserve.
States can play an important role in supporting districts by ensuring Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds deliver maximum impact for students.