Connecticut Students Show Steep Losses in Math and Reading, According Harvard Study

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Students in grades 3 to 8 lost on average about 7 months of learning in mathematics, and 4 ½ months of reading instruction in Connecticut between 2019 and 2022, according to newly released data by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard. Those losses were most notable in districts with high numbers of low-income students.

New Haven public school students, among the most harmed in the recent data, lost on average about a year and three months of math instruction, and about a year of reading, compared to 2019 levels. Hartford and Waterbury students lost about a year in math learning. Hartford students also lost 7 months of reading, and Waterbury students lost 6 ½  months of reading instruction.

The data is based on the recent scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress and state assessment data from 2022. 

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Dr. Ilene Tracey, superintendent of schools in New Haven, told CT Examiner in an email that she was not surprised by the findings considering that New Haven spent more time learning remotely during the pandemic than any other district in the state.

“New Haven Public Schools was the only system that was closed for an extended amount of time during the pandemic,” said Tracey. “When we actually went back to full in-person, we had major disruption with staff and student attendance due to the virus. Both teacher and student attendance were impacted. We cannot teach empty seats and when staff is absent due to illness, teaching and learning also suffer.”

In an email to CT Examiner, Belen Michelis, director of communications for Waterbury Public Schools, said that student learning in Waterbury was not immune to the effects of the pandemic, and the district was adjusting accordingly.

“Waterbury Public Schools continues to accelerate strategies on closing the opportunity gap,” Michelis said. “We are strategically utilizing ESSER funding to improve curriculum, enhance instruction, offer additional social and emotional support for students, and increase opportunities for intervention support through tutoring.”

According to an analysis by the center, students with higher levels of poverty tended to see sharper learning losses than districts with lower levels of poverty. Districts like Darien, Fairfield and Glastonbury, where less than a quarter of the student populations are eligible for free and reduced lunch, lost about half a grade level in math. Districts like New Britain, Hartford and Waterbury, where more than three-quarters of the student population are eligible for free and reduced lunch, lost about a year. 

Jesse Sugarman, senior advisor for strategy and institutional advancement at Hartford Public schools, told CT Examiner that learning loss was generally consistent across the nation, and that Hartford had a three-year recovery plan to address it.

Sugarman said Hartford’s high concentration of high-need students – 85% – was a point of focus that would be targeted with their ESSER-funded plan. 

“The limitation around the number of special-ed teachers, speech and language pathologists aligns directly with the areas that we have the most need in,” said Sugarman. “We face those problems more acutely than some other districts might.”

Not all districts are represented in the Harvard data — the majority of the northwest corner of Connecticut  and large swaths of the eastern half of the state are missing from the report.

In the eastern portion of the state, Griswold and Norwich were two districts with some of the largest learning losses.

Griswold students lost about 14 months of math learning and 9 months of reading from 2019 to 2022. Norwich students lost nearly 3 ½  months of reading and nearly a full year in math. 

By comparison, students in East Lyme showed a learning loss of about 6 months in both math and reading from 2019 to 2022. 

East Lyme Superintendent Jeff Newton told CT Examiner in an email that he wasn’t surprised by the findings.  

“We expected to see reduced scores (as did most every district) due to the pandemic so this was not surprising,” said Newton.  “We (along with every other district) will continue the instructional practices we have in place to make a quick recovery on student learning loss.”

An analysis released with the data said that while districts that spent more time in remote learning compared with in-person instruction tended to have greater learning losses, that correlation was not always perfect. 

In Lyme-Old Lyme schools, which were able to stay open for in-person learning for nearly the entirety of the 2020-21 school year, students saw a learning loss of about 5 ½ months of math instruction and about 3 ¾  months of reading from 2019 to 2022. 

Responding to the report, Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said he felt that using the NAEP data was not an accurate measure of student achievement in the district. 

“Not all of our students take this test nor do we take it every year,” Neviaser said in an email. “For these reasons, we do not use NAEP as a metric to determine student success or growth in Region 18.  Instead, we use a number of assessments including, but not limited to, the SAT and SBAC.” 

Eric Scoville, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Education, agreed that the data gave only a “partial picture” that excluded charter schools and Regional Education Service Centers. But he said that the report was consistent with the results of Connecticut’s most recent statewide assessments. 

“Our Statewide Student Assessment results, released in August, also show promising gains from 2021 to 2022, especially in the elementary grades – something that these national reports cannot provide,” said Scoville. “With continued targeted interventions and innovations, we will be able to maintain a forward momentum.” 

Scoville said the state would continue partnering with school districts to make the best possible use of the federal coronavirus relief funds, focusing on equity and bringing students up to grade level. 

In a call on Friday to discuss the data, researchers for the center estimated that school districts will need to double their budgets to return students to their previous achievement levels. 

Thomas Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research, said that many districts have plans for student recovery that aren’t adequate to address how far behind students have fallen.

“I would urge districts to take a fresh look at their plans now that we have this data on the magnitude of their achievement loss,” he said, noting that districts have only one more year to spend the large sums of federal coronavirus relief funds that they received in 2021.  

Kane also said that parental perception makes a huge difference, and that most parents don’t believe their children are as far behind as they really are. 

“90-plus percent of parents think their kid is currently at or above grade level. Yet, what we just told you is the average student lost half a grade level,” said Kane.

He said that the disparity could mean that parents won’t address the learning loss with the needed urgency, and won’t encourage their schools district to take additional action. 

“I think it’s less about dollars, and more about common sense of urgency. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to solve with providing better data,” he said.