School districts that switched to distance education during the coronavirus pandemic did much worse on the spring 2021 standardized tests than those that kept their classrooms open, according to a new analysis of scores in Minnesota and 11 others States.
On average, statewide responsibility test proficiency rates fell 14.2 percentage points in math and 6.3 percentage points in reading compared to 2019.
But districts that have stuck to in-person learning throughout the school year saw drops of just 4.1 points in math and 3.1 points in reading, according to one. working paper released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“These interactions between the loss of test scores and the mode of schooling are very significant,” the authors wrote.
STUDY: VIRTUAL SCHOOL DOES NOT SUPPORT LEARNING IN THE SAME WAY AS IN PERSON
The findings build on previous research that shows that summer vacation and weather-related disruptions also hurt student performance.
â€œOur analyzes show that virtual or distance schooling methods cannot support student learning in the same way as face-to-face schooling. As such, the educational impacts of schooling mode on student learning outcomes should be a critical factor in policy responses to future pandemics or other large-scale school disruptions, â€they wrote.
The study’s authors include Brown University economics professor Emily Oster, who led a data collection effort on schools and COVID-19 and became a leading advocate for keeping classrooms open during the pandemic.
They cite other research which found that school closures had little or no impact on the level of the coronavirus spread in communities.
The new analyzes of test results, they said, “underscore the value of in-person learning and may provide a caveat when considering school closures in the future.”
The study also adds to the evidence that the pandemic has been particularly damaging to the education of students of color.
Districts with low base proficiency rates and those with a high proportion of black students were more likely to close. And among districts with more black and Hispanic students, the educational gains measured by the tests were strongly correlated with the decision to close or stay open.
â€œAlthough the impact of schooling style on (reading scores) is quite small for majority white districts, it is important for districts with a majority of colored students,â€ the study found.
Minnesota released its 2021 test results in August, which showed math pass rates fell from 55% to 44% since 2019 and from 60% to 53% in reading.
This data release also included information on test performance by learning mode.
Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said in August that the disparities between in-person and distance learners demonstrate that the relationships students develop in school are important.
â€œThis is not surprising data,â€ she said. â€œWe know that being at school with the staff matters. “
However, Minnesota’s results didn’t quite follow the 12-state trend. While districts in Minnesota with more in-person instruction performed better on math tests compared to previous years, districts with less in-person instruction actually did somewhat better in reading.
MANY HAVE DONE BOTH
Governor Tim Walz ordered public schools in Minnesota to close and switch to distance education when the virus began to spread throughout the state in March 2020. The state’s annual standardized tests, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, were canceled this spring.
For the 2020-21 school year, Minnesota health and education officials have released guidelines that encourage schools to gradually use more in-person instructions when rates of coronavirus cases in their areas are low. .
As a result, 65% of the state’s school districts used a mix of in-person and distance education – most of the 12 states surveyed. Only Virginia had a smaller proportion of districts using in-person classes throughout the school year.
The other states studied were Florida, where almost all districts remained open throughout the school year, as well as Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Virginia- Western and Wyoming.
This school year, Walz has left it up to school districts to decide whether or not to stay open.
Aided by an influx of federal grants to keep schools open, nearly every district in Minnesota has offered in-person classes for the first three months of the school year, despite high rates of coronavirus cases. Mask warrants remain widespread, and many districts have added online schools as an option for families.
CAUTION OF THE STUDY
The authors said the data on test scores likely underestimates the impact of school closures on students because students with low grades were less likely to take spring exams.
This was the case in Minnesota, where groups of students who took the spring 2021 tests posted pass rates of 55% to 68% in 2019, depending on subject and grade. This compares to 2019 success rates of 40% to 58% for the cohort that skipped the 2021 tests.
At the same time, the authors acknowledged that factors related to the pandemic in addition to the mode of instruction – such as changes in childcare or working conditions of parents or loss of access to tutoring – could have clouded the results.
On the one hand, areas with more in-person learning also had higher rates of COVID-19. On the other hand, places that closed schools were also more likely to implement other lockdown strategies.
“It is difficult to completely separate these effects,” they wrote.