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### Historic Progress Unveiled in U.S. Pandemic Recovery Report

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  • New report shows historic gains in pandemic recovery for many U.S. school districts

New report shows historic gains in pandemic recovery for many U.S. school districts

Students in a classroom taking a test

A recent study conducted by scholars at Stanford and Harvard indicates that students managed to regain approximately one-third of the initial decline in math proficiency and one-quarter of the decline in reading ability. (Photo: iStock)

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New report shows historic gains in pandemic recovery for many U.S. school districts

Significant advancements in math and reading were observed among students, surpassing the progress typically made in a standard academic year. However, the slower improvement rates among underprivileged students have contributed to the widening of the achievement gap.

Date: January 31, 2024

By Carrie Spector


A comprehensive report produced by researchers at Stanford and Harvard highlights the remarkable strides made by U.S. students in math and reading during the 2022-23 academic year, marking the first complete year of post-pandemic recovery.

The study, which evaluates the pace of academic recuperation in 30 states’ school districts throughout the 2022-23 school year, reveals that students managed to recover about one-third of the initial math loss and one-quarter of the reading loss. These improvements significantly surpass the anticipated learning progress for a standard year based on historical patterns.

In one state, Alabama, students returned to pre-pandemic math proficiency levels, while students in three states achieved reading levels equivalent to those in 2019. Nonetheless, the majority of states included in the study still have students lagging behind by more than a third of a grade level in math compared to pre-pandemic standards, with nearly half of the states facing a similar situation in reading proficiency.

Sean Reardon, co-author of the study and the Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education, as well as the faculty director of the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, stated, “Students have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels of achievement overall. However, notable progress is evident.”

The latest data also shed light on the widening achievement gaps between districts with high and low poverty rates since 2019, attributed to greater initial setbacks in impoverished districts and the slower recovery of underprivileged students within the average district.

This report, released on January 31, is part of the ongoing collaboration between researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the Center for Education Policy and Research (CEPR) at Harvard.

Building upon their previous findings, which indicated that between spring 2019 and spring 2022, the average student in grades 3 through 8 experienced a decline equivalent to half a grade level in math and a third of a grade level in reading, the researchers emphasized the crucial role of educators in facilitating substantial learning improvements among children throughout the past year.

“While we acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of teachers, principals, and superintendents in enhancing children’s learning outcomes, it is imperative to recognize that the recovery process has been uneven, and there is still a long way to go,” Reardon remarked.

Assessing setbacks and advancements

The report draws upon the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), a comprehensive national database managed by the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, which encompasses reading and math test scores from every public school in the U.S. Established in 2016, this database has been instrumental for researchers and policymakers in examining educational trends and patterns across the country based on factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

For this study, researchers utilized standardized test results from approximately 8,000 school districts in 30 states, excluding 20 states either due to changes in their state assessments since 2022 or insufficiently detailed data on their official websites.

To quantify the initial setbacks resulting from the pandemic, the researchers compared test scores from spring 2019 to spring 2022. In measuring the recovery progress, they analyzed scores from spring 2022 against those from spring 2023. Across all 30 states examined, students managed to recover around 30% of the initial math loss and 25% of the reading decline.

While students in Alabama restored their math proficiency to pre-pandemic levels by spring 2023, those in 17 states still lagged behind by more than a third of a grade level compared to their 2019 achievements. Similarly, students in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi reached 2019 reading proficiency levels, whereas students in 14 states remained more than a third of a grade level behind.

Disparities in recovery

The report underscores the disparities in both the impact of the pandemic and the subsequent recovery process. The achievement gaps between districts with high and low poverty rates widened during the pandemic, with students in high-poverty districts experiencing the most significant setbacks.

Despite the ongoing recovery efforts, the researchers noted that little progress has been made in bridging these gaps. Reardon highlighted, “In numerous states, the recovery is primarily driven by affluent districts, which encountered fewer challenges during the pandemic. Students in economically disadvantaged districts, on average, have regressed compared to their 2019 performance levels.”

The states witnessing the most substantial widening of achievement gaps include Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Michigan, according to the report.

During the pandemic, Congress allocated a total of $190 billion in federal aid to K-12 schools, with a predominant focus on high-poverty districts. With the funding program scheduled to conclude in September 2024, approximately a third of the funds remained unutilized as of fall 2023, as reported by the U.S. Department of Education.

The report recommends strategies for state and local agencies to allocate the remaining funds, advocating for the expansion of summer learning opportunities this year and the implementation of tutoring and after-school programs through external contractors.

“Despite the remarkable progress observed last year, a majority of school districts are not on track to complete the recovery process by this spring,” noted Thomas Kane, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and a co-author of the report. “District leaders are encouraged to leverage this data to assess their progress and reconsider the allocation of the remaining federal relief funds.”

Additional contributors to this project include Erin Fahle, Sadie Richardson, Julia Paris, Demetra Kalogrides, Jie Min, and Jiyeon Shim (Educational Opportunity Project); Daniel Dewey, Victoria Carbonari, and Dean Kaplan (Center for Education Policy Research); and Douglas Staiger (Dartmouth College). The research received support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin and Griffin Catalyst, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Faculty mentioned in this article: