Study: Pandemic learning loss may cost Massachusetts students billions in future earnings

A new study found reading and math scores dropping, with lowest results amid Black and Hispanic students and in lower income towns and cities in Massachusetts.

Carlin Stiehl / The Boston Globe

On average during the coronavirus pandemic, Massachusetts students lost 75% of a school year’s worth of math learning and 41% of a year of reading, with Boston Public Schools students losing 85% of a year of a math, according to a new study by the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. 

That loss level of math achievement, without intervention, could mean a 1.6% decrease in lifetime earnings of current Massachusetts students, a companion analysis by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University found. That’s about $23,840 per student, or $21 billion in total, the analyses showed.

The Stanford study, entitled “2019-2022 Change In Average Math Achievement In The U.S.,” used data from federally mandated testing on students in grades 3-8. They used the data to estimate test score distributions in schools, school districts, counties, metropolitan statistical areas, commuting zones, and states. 

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Statewide in Massachusetts, reading scores went from 1.18 points above the national average in 2019 to 0.77 points above the national average in 2022. The situation is even more dire in math, where scores in 2019 were 1.06 points above the national average but are now only 0.3 points above the 2022 national average.


These decreases were 75% an 41% for the overall average, but losses were greater for Black and Hispanic students compared to their white counterparts. In math, Black students lost 83% and Hispanic students lost 85%, while white students lost only 74%. In reading, Black students lost 50% and Hispanic students lost 46%, while white students lost only 37%. 

The U.S. Department of Education released state and nationwide data in October for the first time since the 2018-2019 school year, and though Massachusetts remained a top performer — with the highest numeric score of any state for both fourth grade reading and eighth grade math — it reported declines that erased two decades of test score growth.

“While students continue to perform well compared to other states, we know that the impacts of the pandemic continue to present challenges,” said Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement. 

And the Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley, while expressing pride for students’ and families’ resilience, said “It’s clear our students have lost ground, and we have more work ahead to recover.”

Massachusetts broke the mold in 2021 by banning remote learning. Going back to school in person during the 2021-22 school year was irksome for some who cited fickle guidelines and what they considered ill-advised plans to get kids back in the buildings when parents didn’t think it was safe.


But things could have been even worse if students had another year of remote learning, this study suggests. Researchers found a correlation between time spent in remote learning and lost math achievement; states where students missed more in-person school had greater declines, though there may also be other confounding variables.

In the short term, meanwhile, schools are already scrambling to recover what has been lost. 

The study examined these numbers by districts as well as states, and the losses by districts were largely correlated with wealth. In other words, the pandemic made things worse for the students who already had it worse, and better for the students who already had it better.

At Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, teachers are now teaching phonics-based reading explicitly past third grade — pre-pandemic, most third-grade students didn’t need phonics instruction, its principal Kristen Goncalves Redden told the Boston Globe

In Salem, schools are offering intensive tutoring to hundreds of students and implementing new curriculums; Superintendent Steven Zrike told the Globe students are on average between half a year and a full year behind where they should be. 


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