Students lost 5 months in math, 4 in reading during the pandemic

By Diana Shi

July 30, 2021

In a year of remarkable challenges, the education progress of American schoolchildren took a substantial hit, with more than a quarter of a year’s learning lost.

A recently published McKinsey analysis, which compared the assessments of 1.6 million elementary school-age children in 2021 with the same assessment results in 2017, 2018, and 2019, shows students lost four months of learning, on average. According to the results, students fell behind by five months in math and four in reading, overall. The analysis notes that the learning loss could be attributed to a matter of “almost . . . no new content” learned in the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year (which was most likely experienced virtually), coupled with a slight step backwards during a “summer slide,” and a less-efficient learning rate during the 2020-2021 school year.

The report also notes how the pandemic contributed to inequality and broadened the achievement gap between more privileged and less privileged students. According to the data, students from mainly Black and low-income schools fell even further behind than the average student in the study.

Using math proficiency as a measurement, students from Black high schools fell behind by six months; low-income students fell behind by seven months. High school seniors, particularly from low-income backgrounds, were less likely to pursue postsecondary degrees and attend college after the pandemic school year.

The learning loss, reported using cumulative months of math learning, was not more pronounced in rural areas (four months) versus suburban or metro districts (both five months).

In a more positive revelation, the analysis does mention many schools were able to recover some normality by the end of the 2021 school year—including on-site learning and in-person graduations. However, more than a third (34%) of families (from a survey group of about 16,400 parents) shared they were concerned about their children’s mental health.