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Data Finds Students Falling Behind in Math During Pandemic

Analysts have been tracking the progress of 800,000 students on Zearn’s online math platform. The results show students from low-income ZIP codes are especially struggling to keep up with online lessons.

Zearn CEO Shalinee Sharma provided an overview of math learning loss during a Thursday webinar hosted by the Walton Family Foundation.
Data pulled from an online learning platform suggests that elementary students across the nation are struggling with math, even as educators scramble to mitigate the impact of school closures on coursework. While much of the data was mixed by location, low-income students recorded the most learning loss. 

Zearn Math, an online program used by over 6 million elementary school students, has been monitoring the progress of about 800,000 of its public-school users since COVID-19 forced schools to close their doors in March. Zearn has since shared its weekly findings with Opportunity Insights, a data project developed by Harvard and Brown universities designed to track the economic impact of the pandemic.

Shalinee Sharma, founder and CEO of curriculum and education software company Zearn, provided a look at learning loss throughout the COVID-19 pandemic during a webinar on Thursday hosted by the Walton Family Foundation.

Sharma said many students using Zearn before the pandemic showed a “massive” drop in progress and participation when courses first went virtual.

Overall, low-income students were hit the hardest in terms of progress and participation during the pandemic. Consistent with findings from other studies about math learning loss, Zearn’s data showed that by May 2020, students from low-income zip codes had regressed in math by more than 11 percent.

“No one was ready,” said Sharma, speaking as part of a Walton-sponsored virtual expert panel series, Learning and Leading Together: The Next Five Years. “This is what happened in our country to our most vulnerable kids in the spring of 2020.”

At the start of the fall 2020 semester, Zearn analysts were optimistic that students across the country could recover with the help of $1.5 billion awarded to schools through the federal CARES Act, and state programs that aimed to provide devices and Internet connectivity to remote students.

For a brief moment, Sharma said, it seemed that both low- and high-income students had a chance to bounce back from the initial shock they experienced during the spring.

“On our data, it seemed like America was going to overcome the hardship of the pandemic and run school for all our kids, rich or poor,” Sharma said. “Deeper in our data, we could see the important and amazing efforts to get wireless devices into low-income communities, an effort that is not complete.”

However, by mid-October student progress began to falter once again, and total online participation was down about 10 percent compared to January 2020.

"As the fall progressed, you can see the low-income and high-income lines pull apart again,” Sharma said.

Overall, students from high-income families experienced very little learning loss throughout 30 instructional weeks, according to the data. Sharma noted low-income students have experienced learning loss “every single week, except perhaps one.”

The data suggests fluctuations in particpation and progress, which also varied widely by location. As of this week, total student participation in online math coursework decreased by 6.6 percent compared to January 2020.

In Washington D.C., total student participation in online math coursework increased by more than 54 percent compared to January 2020. Connecticut and Delaware also noticed increases of about 55 percent and 31 percent, respectively. 

Each of these states also recorded notable increases in progress, while most states declined in both metrics. Virginia recorded a staggering 81-percent decline in participation in this timeframe.

While it may be tempting to simply replicate the efforts of states and districts with increases, Sharma said this learning loss does not have a one-size-fits-all solution.

It will be up to many local and state policymakers and educators to find effective solutions.

“Because the learning loss for low-income kids is heterogeneous, we are not going to be able to prescribe one solution for every state, metro and county,” she noted. “Local context will be essential to consider and plan for in the recovery.”

Sharma thinks policymakers should focus on safely reopening schools as soon as possible to help students who’ve experienced significant learning loss over the past year, whether due to the digital divide or lack of guidance from in-person instruction.

Moving forward, Sharma hopes the Zearn data can be used as a guide to help students recover when they return to in-person learning.

“The Zearn data shows us that this iteration of virtual learning is not working at all (for most students), even if kids have laptops and the Internet,” she said. “Our app data shows that the structure and accountability that schools provide are nearly non-existent in virtual settings.”



Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.