Pandemic Learning Loss in West Virginia and the Path Forward

There’s no question that children throughout the country have suffered learning losses since the onset of the pandemic and the transition to virtual learning. The vital questions now center around how much learning loss has occurred and how can those losses most effectively be overcome.

Thanks to new research from The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, we now have more informed estimates of the level of “COVID-slide.” The study, “Estimates of Learning Loss in the 2019-20 School Year,” released earlier this fall, calculates the magnitude of student-level learning losses based on data from 19 states or major school districts throughout the United States.

Across the country, the findings are sobering. In reading, it is estimated that students lost anywhere from 56 to 183 days worth of learning. In math, the estimates are more dire suggesting that students lost anywhere from 136 to 233 days worth of learning. Given a 180-day school calendar, that translates to up to an entire year’s worth of reading and up to nearly 1.5 years worth of math learning that has been lost.

While West Virginia is not one of the states specifically analyzed in the study, we can use comparisons with other noted ranking systems such as the U.S. News Rankings or the rankings of NAEP scores by state to make informed estimates on the magnitude of learning loss here in the Mountain State.

Based upon those comparative ranking systems, and the states included in the study, we should look at the results in Arkansas to give ourselves the best chance of accurately understanding the situation in West Virginia. For comparison, Arkansas ranks 43rd in education when considering aggregate NAEP scores, and 38th by U.S. News, while West Virginia comes in at 42nd and 41st respectively. If we want to consider more than pure rankings, and take geography and demographics into account, Kentucky’s numbers are also enlightening.

Results from the study indicate that learning losses in Arkansas averaged 62 days worth in reading, and 138 days worth in math. In Kentucky, estimated losses averaged 121 days in reading and 172 in math. Given how closely West Virginia and Arkansas stack up in various ranking systems, and the similarities across much of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arkansas it’s reasonable to estimate that average learning losses in the Mountain State fall somewhere between the two.

Nonetheless, an average of a one to two-thirds of the year’s learning lost in reading, and two-thirds to nearly a year lost in math is startling. These losses are more alarming when considering that the children who were already struggling in school before the pandemic hit have experienced even greater losses than these estimates suggest. In some cases, the losses could easily be large enough as to negate more than an entire school year’s worth of learning.

Going forward, it’s critical that we assess current educational models and how those may need to be changed in order to adapt to these extraordinary challenges. The wide variations in losses estimated by the CREDO study immediately suggest that conventional models are not equipped to meet the diverse needs of this moment.

Rather than doubling down on a system-focused, one-to-many, fixed-pace approach to teaching and learning, we should be open to new and varied approaches.

Moving to a system where funding follows the student and where families have more options for finding the setting that best fits the learning needs of their children are two approaches that West Virginia would be well advised to take.

Jessi Troyan is a Ph.D. economist and the development director for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.