Research suggests in-person classes helped Georgia kids during COVID

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

New research from Brown University offers more evidence that students who attended school online during the pandemic learned less than peers who went back to classrooms.

The analysis by economist Emily Oster compares the change in test scores from 2019 to 2022 in 10 states, including Georgia, where 67% of students were in school districts that offered “very high levels” of in-person instruction.

The average combined drop in the number of third through eighth grade students scoring proficient on their Georgia Milestones scores in English and math over that period was 5.3 percentage points, she reports. That was the fourth-smallest drop, behind Mississippi, Colorado and Louisiana. All of those states, with the exception of Colorado, had similar proportions of students in districts offering high percentages of in-person instruction.

“The initial losses in Georgia were larger in districts that had less in-person learning and those districts are still lagging behind in the 2022 data,” Oster said in an interview. “We are looking at a decline in learning that we are going to continue to need to fight over the next, at least, several years.”

The data is sometimes contradictory. Arkansas had one of the worst outcomes despite its high in-person access: The average proficiency rate there fell 7.8 percentage points. Meanwhile, Colorado did second best on test scores, losing only 2.6 points, yet had only 14% of students in districts that were highly open.

Still, the findings were somewhat predicted by researchers at Georgia State University who tracked scores on non-mandatory tests that some metro Atlanta school districts were using in 2021. They found that students who attended online tended to do worse.

A new working paper from Georgia State provides further evidence. But the researchers note that family decisions about virtual versus classroom attendance were “highly associated with school-level infection rates” during the 2020-21 school year.

Tim Sass, a GSU economist who has co-authored the reports but was not involved with Oster’s analysis, noted that decisions about whether to return to classrooms were influenced by numerous factors, from broadband access to the local COVID fatality rate.

“So there are other factors in play here that are important to keep in mind that could be associated with the decision about learning mode,” Sass said. “But with that said I think the overall conclusion is correct, that kids that stayed remote longer in general had a greater reduction in their achievement growth.”

Both Sass and Oster said the important thing now is to determine which students learned the least and focus on interventions that are most effective to support them.

For example, said Oster, Mississippi’s English scores are back to pre-pandemic levels, unlike Georgia’s. She suggested it’s something the Georgia Department of Education should investigate.

“It seems like the DOE should ask what’s Mississippi doing differently in reading than Georgia’s doing,” she said.

The Georgia Department of Education questioned the use of exam scores as an interstate comparison, since each state has unique standards and tests. An agency spokeswoman noted that the recent Milestones scores improved over 2021, a year when the results were unreliable because so few students entered their school to sit for tests. She also said Oster’s research underscores the work that remains to address the learning loss.

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