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U.S. students are starting to catch up in school — unless they're from a poor area

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some good news on the education front - after the pandemic upended school as we knew it, a new report shows students making significant recoveries in math and reading. The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University collaborated with Harvard in tracking the first full year of post-pandemic recovery between 2022 and 2023. Now, not everyone is catching up. Many of the students still struggling are from the poorest areas of the country. To talk more about what they found is Stanford Professor Sean Reardon, who worked on the report. Professor Reardon, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SEAN REARDON: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Tell us, just briefly, how did you conduct the research?

REARDON: Sure. What we did was we gathered state test data from 2019, 2022 and 2023 from 8,000 school districts in 30 states across the country. And we compared the average test scores of students in each of those districts, and then we measured how much students' scores had recovered by 2023.

KELLY: And the headlines include that in math, students have made up a third of what they lost. It's good but not quite so good in reading. There, kids have made up about a quarter of what they lost. I mean, are these results surprising?

REARDON: They are. I mean, a third or a quarter might not sound like a lot, but you have to realize the losses from 2019 to 2022 were historically large. Students fell by more than a half-grade level behind in math, for example, nationally. That's a giant decline by historical standards. And the third of a year of increase in math is also a very huge increase by historical standards. In a typical year, maybe 2- or 3% of school districts in the country would see that kind of a gain, so to see it on average across 8,000 school districts is quite remarkable.

KELLY: How are students doing it because the fear, as you know, was that schools are pillars for academic learning, obviously, but for all kinds of other things, for nutrition and socialization and the community? And there was fear that with them being closed so long, the damage might be irreversible.

REARDON: Well, we don't know exactly how they're doing it, and I think lots of schools are doing different things. But some of the research shows that one of the ways to help kids catch up most effectively is things like high-intensity tutoring, extra school time, summer learning programs, the sorts of things that make sure kids have extra instructional time. It's hard to catch up when you're half a year behind if you don't have extra time to learn the extra material.

KELLY: What did you find in less privileged areas where they are not catching up or not catching up as fast?

REARDON: Yeah, I mean, the bad news here is that the pandemic really exacerbated inequality between students in high-poverty and low-poverty districts and students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And the recovery has been strong, but it's been relatively equally strong across groups. So the inequality that was widened during the pandemic hasn't gotten smaller, and in some places it's actually gotten larger. And so my fear is that the educational legacy of the pandemic may be a permanent widening of educational inequality. And I think one of the things that might be useful is for states and school districts, superintendents, principals to kind of identify the districts and the schools and the students who are still furthest behind and really target the resources they have to try to provide extra opportunities for learning for kids in those communities. I think inequality isn't going to undo itself naturally. We've got to proactively seek to undo it. And I think with these data, we're in a position to kind of figure out where to target those resources most effectively.

KELLY: Well, and there's an urgency here, right? There are federal funds in place trying to help students catch up, but those funds expire in September, and they've been paying for things like summer school, like tutoring, like extra support.

REARDON: That's right. The federal government provided a historically large amount of money to school districts across the country during the pandemic, and that money has been used and may be part of why we're seeing such a large recovery. But that money has to be spent, or at least obligated to be spent, by September of this year. So not every district is going to have fully caught up by then, and so I think we're going to have to have states step in and carry the baton forward to help the school districts and students who are still behind to fully recover in the next few years.

KELLY: Stanford Professor Sean Reardon, thanks for talking with us.

REARDON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.