NWEA Warns Of COVID Learning Slump

Tazwell Brandabur

The Charter Features


Educators worldwide have been scrambling to keep kids engaged and learning during the ongoing lockdown, with mixed results. New research from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) forecasts that this extended disruption of conventional schooling will create major educational hurdles that could continue to trip students up years down the line.

“NWEA is widely used and proven for growth and proficiency assessments,” notes Michael Lancaster, ACA’s testing coordinator, “…this is the same NWEA associated with the MAP Growth assessments in reading and math that ACA has implemented for two years.” 

Lancaster continued, “these predictions were based on testing more than five million students in grades 3-8 during the 2017-18 school year. They looked at reading and math losses that typically occur over the summer and projected what extended time without instruction would mean.”

In the April 9th issue of the NWEA Blog, Doctor Beth Tarasawa noted: “Preliminary estimates suggest impacts may be larger in math than in reading and that students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50% of typical learning gains and, in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in this subject in normal conditions.”

“… students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50% of typical learning gains and, in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in this subject in normal conditions.”

The researchers modeled two scenarios, the ‘COVID slide’ and the ‘COVID slowdown.’ Tarasawa explained that the COVID slide modeled what would happen if students lost proficiency at the same rate they do over summer vacation, until schools reopen. The COVID slowdown, she continued, predicts student outcomes if students “maintain the same level of academic achievement they had when schools were closed.”

The best case scenario, the COVID slowdown, puts kids at almost normal levels in September.

Why the best-case scenario– the COVID slowdown– isn’t looking likely:

Maintaining academic achievement throughout the lockdown, Lancaster notes, would require teachers to “maintain rigorous, on-pace instruction and student engagement through the closure”– in other words, the COVID slowdown is only applicable if online education with perfect student engagement continues through the summer. 

Even if ACA were to continue schooling past the normal stop date, students nationwide are having trouble staying connected, and a large portion have simply dropped off the radar. 

Ann Heppner, one of ACA’s science teachers, called the lack of student buy-in “very discouraging.” She noted that many of her students “do not seem to be engaged. My elementary reading group is at 30% participation… My biology class is at 52% of students I have heard from… There are some that I have not heard from that I believe are continuing to work and others, I fear, are not.”

Despite the ‘distance learning for all’ policy, academic success is more than ever influenced by family socioeconomic situation, learning ability, and demographic.

Mr. Lancaster noted, “students with learning disabilities still are eligible [for] and may receive specially designed instruction, but that is harder to do over the distance. ACA and other schools have checked out laptops, chromebooks, and hot spots in efforts to keep students connected and lessen the slide… but there are so many variables and lack of preparation that the gaps seem to be widening.”

The COVID slide model may be more realistic.

Learning under the COVID slide:

Distanced learning is just as new as the Coronavirus, so the long-term consequences of a COVID Slide aren’t fully clear. Researchers can, however, turn to history, and observe the effects of normal school closures on students. NWEA forecasts that, under the slide, students may lose 30% of their progress in reading, and up to 50% in math– equivalent to skipping three to five months of the year entirely. 

This sort of extended absence hasn’t historically helped kids learn. 

Chronically absent students– kids who (for a variety of reasons) miss multiple days of school per month on a regular basis, are at a much higher risk of dropping out– a study conducted in 2005 found that attendance was a better predictor of whether a student would drop out than was state testing.

The academic performance of these absentees is below par, too– the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that in some cases “students with more absences have skill levels one to two years below their peers.” 

The educational community is calling for strong, sustained action to help students avoid severe learning losses. Lancaster notes: “I’m concerned, but try to remain optimistic… Educators are not only trying to keep their students connected now. They’re looking ahead at ways to make up lost learning time and close learning gaps to lessen the long-term negative impacts. That way, whatever the needs of the future are, our kids will be as prepared as possible.”

The Charter will continue to cover the COVID learning losses and the response in the coming weeks.


Bennet, Collette. “Daily School Attendance Matters!” ThoughtCo. 19 Mar. 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/daily-school-attendance-matters-4084888. Accessed 20 Mar. 2020.

Calarco, Jessica. “Online learning will be hard for kids whose schools close – and the digital divide will make it even harder for some of them.” The Conversation. 13 Mar. 2020. https://theconversation.com/online-learning-will-be-hard-for-kids-whose-schools-close-and-the-digital-divide-will-make-it-even-harder-for-some-of-them-133338. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Cooper, Harris. “Give parents a coronavirus break and kids an education boost: Add days to next school year.” USA Today. 27 Apr. 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/04/27/coronavirus-add-more-school-days-help-children-learn-column/3020156001/. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Goldstein, Dana; Popescu, Adam; and Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out.” The New York Times. 6 Apr. 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/coronavirus-schools-attendance-absent.html. Accessed 1 May 2020.

IHE. “Coronavirus Live Updates Archive from April 26 to May 3.” Inside Higher Ed. 27 Apr. 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/27/coronavirus-live-updates-archive-april-19-25. Accessed 1 May 2020. 

Jones, Sasha. “Chicago School Closures Led to Achievement Declines, Uncertainty Among Students and Staff.” Education Week. 24 May 2018. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2018/05/chicago_school_closures_result.html. Accessed 2 May 2020.

Kelly, Kate. “Chronic Absenteeism: What You Need to Know.” Understood For All. https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/partnering-with-childs-school/working-with-childs-teacher/chronic-absenteeism-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Stokes, Kyle. “Coronavirus Is Causing A ‘Learning Loss’ Crisis — So California May Cut Short Summer Break.” LAist. 28 Apr. 2020. https://laist.com/2020/04/28/coronavirus_california_schools_reopening_early_july_august_covid.php. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Taketa, Kristen. “Special education will be one of the biggest challenges for schools going online.” San Diego Union Tribune. 13 Apr. 2020. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2020-04-06/schools-will-have-to-make-up-special-education-services-lost-during-closures-officials-say. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Tarasawa, Beth. “COVID-19 school closures could have a devastating impact on student achievement.” NWEA blogs. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.nwea.org/blog/2020/covid-19-school-closures-could-have-devastating-impact-student-achievement/. Accessed 3 May 2020.

Tarasawa, Beth; and Kuhfeld, Megan. “The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement.” NWEA. Apr. 2020. https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/04/Collaborative-Brief_Covid19-Slide-APR20.pdf. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

“Why Does Attendance Matter? Every school day counts in a child’s academic life…” NCES. Feb. 2009. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/attendancedata/chapter1a.asp. Accessed 1 May 2020