In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to close their campuses, there has been deep concern about the impact on student learning. In recent weeks, suspicions about the impact of last spring’s school disruption have been confirmed with data from national testing programs. Those data show that student learning has regressed, particularly in math, with students anywhere from one to five months behind where they are expected to be for the grade they entered in September. Even more concerning, teachers report not being able to maintain contact with some students who have little or no access to computers and the internet.
These national results do not necessarily reflect the experience of students in private and independent schools, who benefit from smaller class sizes and more extensive support from teachers and learning specialists. To understand the impact of COVID-19 school closures on independent school students, the best source is ERB’s standardized CTP tests of student learning. Our assessments, administered to students in grades 1 through 9, are scored on a vertical scale that allows measurement of student growth from year to year. The data are organized in a way that enables us (as well as teachers and administrators) to track individual students over time rather than just examining aggregate change in the population of test takers.
Each year, nearly 2 million subject-specific CTP tests are normally taken by over 250,000 students drawn from thousands of schools. This volume of results makes any analysis of learning growth trends highly reliable. During fall 2020, fewer students from fewer schools took CTP tests. Those who have done so often took the tests at home, delivered online with their teachers serving as remote proctors. The ERB team examined score trends from 2018 and 2019 for this much smaller sample and found that they are representative of the larger universe of CTP test takers.
Figure 1 shows the percentage change in student scores from fall 2019 (before pandemic-related campus closures) to fall 2020. For context, the Figure also shows the one-year percentage change in scores for those same students from 2018 to 2019. Data from grades 2 through 7 are combined in this graph, though inspection of the results for each grade shows a great deal of consistency.
COVID-related disruptions did reduce the rate of student learning during the spring and fall of 2020. Student growth from 2019 to 2020 in Mathematics, Reading Comprehension and Writing Skills and Concepts was only about 70% of the amount of growth in those same students from 2018 to 2019. We would expect some degree of slowing in learning growth from one year to the next since the pace of learning is generally most rapid in the early grades. A 30% loss of learning growth momentum is greater than the usual year-to-year slowing, however, and is surely a consequence of COVID-19. It is worth noting that these results are notably less dire than reports based on national studies, such as the study published by McKinsey and Co.
Slowing of learning momentum is greater in Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning than in our subject tests. Student growth in our two reasoning measures from fall 2019 to fall 2020 was only half the amount of growth shown by those same students from fall 2018 to fall 2019.
Reasoning skills are built over time not just by learning new material but by acquiring a deep understanding that enables a student to connect new material to what they already know, and then to make inferences about other problems they have not yet encountered. That kind of deep engagement with the material – mastery rather than mere awareness – grows more readily through classroom contact with the teacher than through online or hybrid learning programs.
As private and independent schools master the art of hybrid programming, and as they begin to prepare for a post-COVID future, it will be important to incorporate instructional elements designed to compensate for the loss of momentum in student learning. Once the normal level of direct student-teacher contact is re-established, it will also be important to focus particularly on quantitative and verbal reasoning skills; not just knowing the subject material, but also being able to use that material to solve novel problems.