This week, we revisit some recurring topics as more evidence emerges on important questions of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected student learning and the labor force participation of mothers of school-age children.
Learning Progress in the Time of COVID-19
As previous posts have highlighted, educators and researchers alike were concerned about how COVID-19 and related schooling disruptions would affect student learning. NWEA’s recent report provides the first large-scale data on the pandemic’s impact on student achievement, extracted from Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments taken by 4.4 million students nationwide. The fall scores look better than many estimates, including NWEA’s projections for this fall based on evidence about summer learning loss and predicted widespread declines in performance across subjects. While students’ performance in reading this fall and growth throughout the school year remained similar to students from the previous year—and in some cases performed better than NWEA’s projections for this fall—students lost a lot of ground in math. Students in grades 3-8 scored five to 10 percentile points lower on MAP math assessments this fall compared to their counterparts in fall 2019, and students across grades exhibited lower growth over the school year than the previous year’s grade-level cohorts.
An important limitation of these findings is that assessment data was missing for many students. Many schools did not administer remote assessments this fall due to technological restraints, and even among schools where assessments occurred this information was more likely to be missing for vulnerable students, including students that were absent from school and/or opting out of testing for economic, health, technological, or other unknown reasons. These sample constraints suggest that learning losses are understated. In addition, the authors note that scores from remote MAP testing this fall may be less comparable to assessments conducted in person in 2019. For more details about how the authors addressed this limitation, there is a technical brief with comparability analysis.
Mothers’ Exit from the Labor Market
A prior post in this series discussed the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal employment. While surveys and administrative data have been used to assess labor force changes due to the pandemic in broad terms, there were not specific indicators for whether or not a labor force decision was tied specifically to school closings. An October column in the New York Times presents analysis on this question, and does so by following the same individuals across multiple waves of the Current Population Survey (encompassing June through September, in both 2019 and 2020). Specifically, the author compares job sensitivity amidst school closures between parents of school-age children and similar individuals who are not parents. The resulting estimates imply that a 10 percentage-point rise in state-level school closing rates leads to a 1.5 percentage-point reduction in mothers’ labor force participation as compared to childless women. This effect would correspond to 1.6 million more mothers of school-age children not participating in the labor force by fall of 2020. Pandemic effects on men’s labor force participation were not different for those with and without children. The author notes that these estimates cannot extend to predicting the labor market effects under different school reopening scenarios (e.g., if all schools suddenly returned to in-person instruction), but that they do highlight that “the virus dictates the pace of the recovery, and until it’s under control, economic life will not return to normal.” More analytic details are available in the related working paper.