New study details pandemic’s academic impact on DC students

Camila Camborda is the Senior Analyst on our Advocacy and Public Engagement Team

Most DC students fell behind on math and reading while learning remotely during the pandemic, a new report from EmpowerK12 released this week found. The analysis examines “unfinished learning”, exploring students’ academic performance during the 20-21 school year finds that all students have faced negative impacts from the interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in “unfinished learning”. (Education Forward DC is a funder of EmpowerK12 and funded this report.)

As we have seen in both EmpowerK12’s prior report as well as national data students across grade levels have demonstrated lower scores in reading and math assessments. Students who performed lower pre-pandemic were also more likely to see larger negative impacts on learning, compared to their peers. Black and Latinx students were disproportionately impacted, compared to their peers.  Even more troubling, students in high poverty schools in DC showed more of a decline in grades 3-8 reading, than students in high poverty schools nationwide.

Although this new data is troubling, we are beginning to see signs of improvement. Most students did experience some academic growth this past year, albeit at slower progress than would be expected.  

Simultaneously, parents, students, teachers, and education leaders continue to push for a strong, equitable recovery.

As part of the Strongest Year Yet campaign in 2021, a diverse coalition of over 40 nonprofit organizations and local education agencies came together to advocate for a safe return to in-person learning, additional funding for education, and wraparound supports for students. The EmpowerK12 study also suggests that students who received in-person instruction during SY 20-21 had higher percentages of growth achieved than those who received less in-person instruction time, or none at all. This difference was especially significant for students defined as “at-risk”*. This is a promising sign as most of DC’s students are learning in-person this school year.

We have also seen a continued call for innovation and creativity as we recover equitably. Ed Forward DC grantee PAVE’s Executive Director wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post alongside other education leaders calling for solutions that would address the inequalities that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, such as providing mental health supports to educators, and high impact tutoring for the students furthest behind.

Finally, here at Education Forward DC, we are continuing to support partners across the city whose work is more important than ever. We want every DC student to thrive in life with the opportunities to make the educational, career, and family choices to be happy and successful – and for this to be true we need to lay the groundwork for a reimagined school experience. Central to that strategy is supporting research like this report, the State of DC schools, and more – to ensure that school leaders and policy makers are equipped to understand and respond to the pandemic’s full impact on our students.

*At-risk is defined as students who receive TANF or SNAP benefits, experience homelessness, are in foster care, or are more than two years behind, if in high school.