A sign posted in March outside the Murphey Candler Elementary School in DeKalb County announces the school building closures prompted by the coronavirus and the move to at-home learning. JOHN SPINK/AJC FILE PHOTO

Study: Metro Atlanta students fell behind in studies during pandemic

Thousands of metro Atlanta students have fallen behind in math and English after the coronavirus forced schools to move to remote learning, a new study found.

The report estimates that out of roughly 600,000 students in eight metro districts, about 21,000 fewer students are now on track for their grade level in English and 29,000 fewer students are on track in math.

The learning loss stems from the nine weeks this spring when school buildings closed, requiring students to learn through online lessons or take-home work packets. Participation in virtual classes at some schools lagged. Not all students — especially those from low-income families — had computers or internet access.

Experts said that despite best efforts from many teachers and school leaders, the quickly implemented distance learning programs couldn’t match the in-person instruction that students receive during a traditional school day.

“Our school districts were making steady gains over the last four years and this … kind of reset those gains by about two years,” said Ken Zeff, executive director of Learn4Life. “Things were trending all in the right direction, and now we have to sort of reclimb that hill again.”

Learn4Life is a partnership of eight metro school systems, businesses and nonprofits working to improve student achievement. It teamed up with the nonprofit organization RedefinED Atlanta to commission the recent study by EmpowerK12, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that does educational research and data analysis.

Those involved in the effort said it’s the first attempt in Georgia to quantify the impact from the coronavirus closures. Meghan Frick, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education, said she’s not aware of any similar studies.

Read the study

The report looked at the impact of previous school closures caused by hurricanes Harvey and Katrina and the learning loss students experience during summer months when school is not in session. It also examined how attendance impacts state test scores.

The state canceled those tests this year because of the virus. But researchers said conservative estimates indicate that the percentage of third through eighth grade metro Atlanta students deemed proficient on the English language arts test would have dropped from 46.4% in 2019 to 42.8% this year, or a 3.6 percentage point decline. The study estimates an even bigger drop in math of 4.9 percentage points.

Experts said school districts should pay close attention to the impact on low-income and black and Hispanic students, who already lagged behind before the pandemic.

They recommend assessing students when school resumes in August to gauge where they are academically so that teachers can tailor lessons to fit needs.

“We just think it’s important to really be transparent. The districts should be open with parents regarding the actual potential loss of learning and then the need for baseline testing,” said Ed Chang, who helped found an Atlanta charter school before he became RedefinED’s executive director. “If you don’t know where you are starting from, it’s going to be hard to get to the destination”

The study also suggests lengthening the school day or year to make up for lost in-person instruction. Expected state budget cuts might make that a challenge, but Chang said school leaders should review how they use existing classroom time to make sure it’spurposeful. Nonprofit partners and after-school program providers also can step in to help schools fill the academic gaps.

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