New Research Finds Widening Educational Inequality in Year of COVID

Experts call for action to support educators in fostering growth for all students, particularly those who have been traditionally underserved

Portland, Ore., July 28, 2021 — NWEA —  a not-for-profit, research and educational services provider serving K-12 students  —  released today new research that highlights a challenging year in education with most students making lower-than-typical learning gains in math and reading. The research examined MAP Growth assessment scores from 5.5 million U.S. public school students in grades 3-8 between fall 2020 and spring 2021 and found:

  • On average, students across most grades and subject areas made learning gains in 2020-21, but at a lower rate compared to pre-pandemic trends.
  • 2020-21 outcomes were lower relative to historic trends. Gains across 2020-21 were at a lower rate and students ended the year with lower levels of achievement compared to a typical year, with larger declines in math (8 to 12 percentile points) than in reading (3 to 6 percentile points).
  • Achievement was lower for all student groups in 2020-21; historically underserved students (e.g., American Indian and Alaskan Native, Black, and Latino and/or students in high poverty schools) were disproportionately impacted, particularly in the elementary grades that NWEA studied.

“As our nation continues to grapple with COVID-19 and its impact on every facet of our lives, this new research from NWEA illuminates just how devastating the academic consequences have been for our nation’s children. While all students have suffered from interrupted instruction, students of color and students from low-income families — who are more likely to receive virtual instruction but less likely to have access to sufficient broadband and devices necessary to access virtual learning — have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s academic burden. It is vital that policymakers, school leaders, and educators act on this crucial research to ensure that students who need the most support receive it,” said Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, in response to the new research.

NWEA’s research highlights national trends from this past year, but local context matters. Thus, NWEA encourages communities to dive deeper into their own data and insights to understand the ongoing impact of the pandemic on their students. The experiences of individuals will differ from the national average, and communities must look beyond just academic indicators to understand the impacts. Attendance, school engagement, social-emotional well-being, family environment, community support, unemployment rates, evictions and other factors should all be looked at holistically to inform actionable plans that are specific to the needs of their own communities as we start the long road to recovery.

“It’s important to remember that academic achievement is only one dimension of students’ education and these data alone cannot paint a complete picture of how young people fared this past year. For instance, our results cannot speak to the many ways students, families, and teachers have shown incredible resilience and adaptability in the face of immense challenges that completely upended normal life,” said Dr. Karyn Lewis, senior research scientist at NWEA and lead author of the study.

One thing is clear from the national data: students of color and/or those experiencing poverty were impacted at greater levels, exacerbating pre-existing inequities and calling for urgency in focusing resources.

“The data sets from the NWEA study confirm the profound impact COVID-19 had on families and students. They also highlight the stark inequities that existed before March 13, 2020 — the pandemic grossly exacerbated the disparities we see in the education sector,” said Dr. Michael Conner, Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools in Middletown, CT. “However, the data sets also call for the holistic redesign and transformation of an operating model that can finally ground the principles of innovation, creativity, and equity in every fabric of our schools. At this juncture, we have permission to be bold, creative, innovative, and experimentative for acceleration and recovery. There has not been a time in our industry where we can reimagine the traditional industrial model that historically marginalized students. This is the opportunity where systemic change in the context of policy, investments, and organizational practice can shift the trajectory of every student we encounter.”

While these inequities are not new, the level of funding now available to help address the need is, providing a critical moment to support those communities most impacted. Along with the new research, NWEA released a series of policy recommendations to advocate for deploying the unprecedented federal funding to communities and student populations most impacted by the pandemic, including investing in school counselors and nurses to address mental health and social-emotional well-being of students, tutoring and extending instructional time, professional development geared at meeting the needs of diverse learners and redesigning state accountability systems to better align with recovery plans.

NWEA is not alone in this advocacy. Like minded, equity-focused organizations and voices are speaking up even louder now to support our educational community in the long path ahead.

“These data show in very stark terms just how much the pandemic took a toll on learning for all students, especially for students of color and those living in poverty,” said Deborah Delisle, CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Congress is making an historic investment in education with COVID relief funding. It’s time for states, districts, and schools to use that money to create systemic changes that impact students now — and for generations to come — and make our education system more just for every student who walks through our doors.”

“It comes as no surprise that the shift to distance learning proved challenging for many students, parents, and teachers, but the eye-opening numbers from the NWEA study show the true extent of the impact on student learning, particularly on underserved students,” said Janet Murguía, President and CEO of UnidosUS. “While many Latino households continue the struggle to recover from the effects of the pandemic, a particular focus must be on ensuring that students can succeed regardless of their racial/ethnic and economic background. As we prepare for the upcoming school year, it is critical that our leaders prioritize investments in our schools so that our students are equipped with the support and resources they need to succeed. Only then can we continue to make progress in bridging the achievement gap.”

“There is a lot of work for us to do going forward,” said Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. “NWEA’s research confirms how deeply students of color and students from low-income communities have been affected by the pandemic. The road ahead is an opportunity to focus on personalized, mastery-based learning — and to give every student everywhere the chance to fill in gaps.”

“Our purpose in sharing this research was not to tell teachers how challenging this last year was. They understand better than anyone what it was like for students and what they need to do when they enter those classrooms this fall,” said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA. “Our call for radical collaboration is directed at those who work in support of educators. We must remove any barriers in the way of effective instruction, apply resources where teachers need them the most (and that means truly listening to what they need) and ensure there is support beyond this next year because that unprecedented federal funding will run out long before we’ve reached that education transformation.”

To learn more about the new research,

About NWEA

NWEA® (formerly known as Northwest Evaluation Association) is a mission-driven, not-for-profit organization that supports students and educators in more than 146 countries through research, assessment solutions, policy and advocacy services, professional learning and school improvement services that fight for equity, drive classroom impact and push for systemic change in our educational communities. Visit to learn more about how we’re partnering with educators to help all kids learn.

Contact: Simona Beattie, Sr. Manager, Public Relations, or 971.361.9526