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April 13, 2022

Third MSU report on ‘pandemic learning’ shows less student progress in 2020-2021

A new report from Michigan State University provides further insight into the impact of the pandemic and related disruptions to education on Michigan students.


The report found that achievement growth slowed over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, with fewer Michigan students reaching expected growth targets in fall 2021 than before the pandemic. This is not unique to Michigan, but echoes findings from other research in districts and states across the U.S. consistently showing lower average achievement and less than typical achievement growth than would have been expected for similar students before the pandemic.


This is the third in a series of reports from MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education, or MDE. This report incorporates new results from student test scores from the fall of the 2021-22 school year to update previous analyses and continue to monitor student progress.


For the first time in 2020-21, benchmark assessments such as the NWEA MAP Growth assessment ­— the test used by the majority of Michigan school districts ­— were required by the state as part of the “Return to Learn” law. Tests like the NWEA MAP were given at least twice during the year to measure student progress toward academic goals.


This latest report examines how student achievement trends for Michigan compare to national or state trends before the pandemic, whether students made progress toward growth targets and how much achievement trends vary across groups of students.


To answer these questions, EPIC used kindergarten to eighth grade mathematics and reading benchmark assessment data from fall 2021 and, when available, prior test score data from the 2020-2021 school year. The analyses included benchmark assessment results from about 750,000 of Michigan’s kindergarten to eighth grade students in 735 school districts.


During the fall of 2020, Michigan students were scoring close to pre-pandemic numbers. This suggests that although students experienced major disruptions to their instruction during the first phase of the pandemic in late spring 2020, they still performed about as well in fall 2020 as students who took the same test before the pandemic.

By fall 2021, however, Michigan students tended to score below pre-pandemic levels across most grade levels with the trend more pronounced in mathematics than reading. Three-quarters of Michigan students demonstrated growth from fall 2020 to fall 2021, but at slower rates than before the pandemic.


Student growth targets represent the median growth for students with similar prior achievement scores before the pandemic. In a typical year, about 50% of students would be expected to reach these growth targets. However, only 40% of students reached their targets from fall 2020 to fall 2021.


Katharine Strunk, Clifford E. Erickson Distinguished Chair in Education and co-director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative research lab

Most concerning is that 24% did not demonstrate any growth at all, meaning their scores decreased or did not change from fall 2020 to fall 2021.


“In spite of the hard and in many cases heroic work of students, educators, and community members, the disruption of the pandemic has had an adverse impact on students academically, socially, emotionally and physically,” said State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice. “As we begin to better fund schools and by extension to better support students, we must fill in the gaps and address delayed or disrupted learning from the last two years. This work is particularly critical and must be especially targeted for those students who, either by district decision or parent choice, were educated remotely last year.” 


Long-standing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps persisted into the 2021-2022 school year, but did not appear to grow over the course of the pandemic. The disparities tended to be largest for upper elementary (third-through fifth-grade) students, followed by middle school (sixth- to eighth-grade) students.


On average, Black students scored between the 15th and 22nd percentiles of white students’ math scores, while Latino/a/x students scored between the 30th and 32nd percentiles and Asian students scored between the 67th and 76th percentiles.


Economically disadvantaged students, on average, scored between the 18th and 25th percentiles of students who are not economically disadvantaged. These achievement gaps are a serious concern, but not a new one; they are comparable in size to achievement gaps on Michigan’s M-STEP and PSAT assessments in 2018-2019.


The report shows that students enrolled in districts that operated fully remotely over the 2020-2021 school year experienced less achievement growth than students in districts operating in person. Mathematics and reading gaps for students in districts that were fully in person for part of the year or hybrid for part of the year were typically smaller than gaps for students in districts that were remote all year. This suggests that access to even a limited amount of in-person instruction was beneficial to students, and the impacts of disrupted learning grew over time. The gaps diminished in size between spring 2021 and fall 2021, which may indicate that students who received less in-person instruction in 2020-21 are beginning to catch up to their peers now that most of their districts have resumed in-person instruction.


According to Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC, and the Clifford Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at MSU’s College of Education, these findings provide important information as we grapple with the academic impacts of the pandemic on Michigan’s students.


“The most concerning finding from this report is that a large proportion of students exhibited no learning gains at all during the 2020-21 school year, at least as measured by their benchmark assessments,” Strunk said. “These kids will not simply ‘catch up’ over time. We need direct investments targeted at these particular students to ensure that they recover from the pandemic’s interruptions.


“The legislature’s requirement that students take benchmark assessments has made it possible for us to understand how learning rates differed across student groups, and to determine that a substantial group of students made no progress as measured by these assessments over the course of the year,” Strunk said. “It will be imperative to continue tracking student progress to ensure that resources can be directed to the students most in need.”


The researchers caution that all of these results must be placed in context of the imperfect data available to analyze student learning during the pandemic. Participation rates in benchmark assessments were lower than for summative year-end tests in pre-pandemic years, especially for kindergarteners. Moreover, the students who did take part in these assessments do not reflect Michigan’s overall student population. In addition, benchmark assessments are only one indicator of student learning and well-being. EPIC will continue this line of research, both with case studies of districts and additional data analysis when spring 2022 test scores become available after this school year ends.


Note to media: Please link to the full report at


By: Kim Ward

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