Remote learning led to lower K-12 test scores in some U.S. states, especially for math, study finds

·3 min read

The coronavirus pandemic forced schools to pivot to virtual learning in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, but new research shows how remote learning hurt some students' academic performance.

According to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), remote learning caused significant declines in test scores in English language arts and math compared to schools with more in-person learning.

"Our research shows that test score losses are significantly larger in districts with less in-person learning," Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University, told Yahoo Finance. "This suggests, yes, that virtual learning was — and is — less effective than in-person learning, at least as measured by school-based testing."

Furthermore, the paper noted that declines "were significantly larger in districts with larger populations of students who are Black, Hispanic or eligible for free and reduced price lunch."

Researchers examined data from 12 states: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

(NBER)
(NBER)

The paper used district-level schooling data from the 2020-21 school year, test score data from 2015 to 2021, and demographic data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The test score data was focused on grades 3 through 8, specifically looking at subject-area pass rates in English language and arts and math.

"Our analysis finds a decline in pass rates from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year in all states," the authors stated in the paper.

Overall, passing rates in math between 2020-1 and previous years declined by 14.2 percentage points on average for those districts with less in-person instruction and 6.3 percentage points in English language arts.

The declines were much smaller in districts that were fully in-person.

The researchers estimated that "offering full in-person instruction rather than fully hybrid or virtual instruction reduces test score losses in math by 10.1 percentage points (on the base of 14.2 percentage points)," and that with English language arts, "the loss is reduced in fully in-person settings by 3.2 percentage points."

Lilliana, who is attending virtual school for remote learning, struggles to do her reading exercises amid COVID restrictions in Louisville, Kentucky, February 24, 2021. REUTERS/Amira Karaoud
Lilliana, who is attending virtual school for remote learning, struggles to do her reading exercises amid COVID restrictions in Louisville, Kentucky, February 24, 2021. REUTERS/Amira Karaoud

Variation between states

There was also a wide variation between states, according to the study.

The authors noted that in-person learning rates were highest in Florida and Wyoming, and lowest in Minnesota and Virginia. Virginia and Colorado also had the highest share of district-time spent in fully virtual learning. 

Across states though, pass rates are on average lower in 2021 than pre-pandemic 2019.

The declines also ranged widely between states, from a nearly 32 percentage point drop in Virginia on math test scores in 2020-21 as compared to 2018-19.

That's compared to a mere 2.3 percentage point drop in Wyoming in English.

Instructional specialist Jessica Crane helps first grade student Dylan Lobo with some calming breathing exercises at the Kelly School, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Instructional specialist Jessica Crane helps first grade student Dylan Lobo with some calming breathing exercises at the Kelly School, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

'The biggest issue' with education amid pandemic

Keeping schools open during the pandemic was highly politicized, with both sides pushing hard either to keep schools open to ensure uninterrupted learning or expressing deep concern over whether the highly contagious — and at the time, deadly — COVID-19 virus would spread as the country was still waiting for mass vaccinations.

Oster addressed the divisive nature of school re-openings, noting that looking back, it could've played out a lot differently.

"It was very unfortunate this this discussion fell so strongly along political lines, rather than focusing on whether schools could be opened safely and how," she said. "In hindsight, I think the biggest issue was simply not making schools and children a priority."

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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