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Report examines effects of COVID-19 on educational outcomes in Washington State

A new report from the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) examines the effects of COVID-19, including school closures and remote learning, on K-12 students’ learning.

Postsecondary enrollment in Washington was down 13 percent in the fall of 2020 compared to the prior year. WSAC believes that K-12 school closures and remote learning during the pandemic may profoundly impact students in their transitions to postsecondary programs.

Rolling out the report, WSAC highlighted four key findings:

  • One out of four public high school students in Washington received a grade that does not earn them credit during the 2020-21 academic year (as of March 2021), an increase of about 42% from the prior academic year.
  • Fewer high school seniors in Washington have completed a FAFSA during the 2020-21 academic year compared to the previous year.
  • Washington families report that children are spending less time on learning activities than before the pandemic.
  • Almost half of Washington students still have no regular in-person instruction, and in-person instruction is even less common for high school students.

While WSAC qualified that evidence of the effects on students’ learning is still limited, as many standard academic progress measures have been altered due to the pandemic, they offer a snapshot of where students are.

Assessing students’ academic performance during the pandemic is only going to tell us part of the story of the impact on learning. However, understanding the impact on learning for K-12 students can help prepare educators and policymakers to address the potential effects on future high school graduation rates and transitions to postsecondary education that are critical for our state’s economic and social wellbeing,” reads the report.

On a national level, there is evidence that the percentage of elementary and middle school students testing below grade level grew in math and ready was higher at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year than in previous years.

According to data collected by Curriculum Associates looking at students tested across the United States in 1st through 8th grades, 1.5 percentage points more students placed below grade level in reading, and 6.4 percentage points more students placed below grade level in math.

Broken down by grade level, students in lower grades tended to have a more significant increase in the proportion testing below grade level compared to students in higher grades, “suggesting that the interruption in school operations in the spring of 2020 may have had a more profound impact on younger students than older ones.”

Disparities based on race and income are also borne out in the Curriculum Associates data:

Third-grade students who attended schools with a higher proportion of BIPOC students experienced a greater increase in students testing below grade level than their peers at schools with fewer BIPOC students. Students who attended schools with lower median household incomes were also more likely to experience a greater increase in students testing below grade level than their higher income peers.”

WSAC believes these national trends likely reflect what is happening in Washington as well. While there are gaps statewide data in some areas, WSAC looked at grades for high school students during the past year to get a sense of where things stand.

As of mid-March 2021, the report found, 14 percent of public high school students in Washington received at least one failing grade (F), 9 percent received at least one “No Credit” (NC), and 5 percent received at least one “Incomplete” (I) during the 2020-2021 school year.

State grading data also shows that the proportion of students receiving failing grades, no credit, or incomplete varies across student groups.

The report also notes a 42 percent increase in the combined proportion of students receiving either a failing, no credit, or an incomplete grade in a course. Between August and March of the 2019-2020 academic year, 18 percent of students did not receive credit for a course they took. During the same time period in the 2020-2021 academic year, that number was 25 percent.

Other indicators, such as time spent on learning activities in the last 7 days relative to before the pandemic, could also impact educational outcomes.

During the week of February 3rd, 2021, about 39 percent of households in Washington with children in school said their children spent much less time on learning activities than they did before the pandemic—and just 19 percent said their children spent the same amount of time as before.

These trends among K-12 students could have significant implications for Washington’s higher education system and workforce, writes WSAC.

Direct postsecondary enrollment rates of high school graduates in Washington have remained flat for years. The disruption in education caused by the pandemic may negatively affect postsecondary enrollment trends and cause a decline for future high school graduates if action is not taken to support students in the K-12 schools. The ongoing challenges in K-12 schools could have long lasting implications that may impact individuals and the state’s ability to meet its economic needs in the future.

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