Researching learning loss: findings from the first stage

By Sophie Burrows
Understanding progress in the 2020-21 academic year

At Renaissance, we know the invaluable role that valid, reliable assessment data can play in informing teaching and learning. We’re proud to be working with the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Department for Education (DfE) on research to understand the immediate and potential long-term impact of Covid-19 on students in England and any learning loss caused by the pandemic.

We have recently finalised our first report with EPI and DfE, part of a series of reports assessing the learning loss experienced by pupils in England as a result of the pandemic. As schools prepare to return on 8th March, the effective use of valid, reliable assessment data is more important than ever to understand the impact of the pandemic on pupils’ education outcomes. Based on assessments of pupils’ actual performance, these findings begin to illustrate exactly where the learning loss occurred and will help to identify where and in what areas, the catch-up is needed for pupils in England.

This first report looks at the impact of the first set of school closures during the Summer term 2020, and is based on the results achieved by pupils in the first half of the 2020/21 autumn term (up to and including 25th October 2020) in comparison with pupils in previous years. Star Assessments are frequently used by schools during the autumn term as their baseline assessment for reading and maths, providing a valuable source of data for measuring learning loss.

Whilst there have already been several studies that have attempted to estimate learning loss in England, the key strength of this study is the ability to draw direct comparisons with other cohorts. We can observe pupil outcomes at the start of the 2020/21 academic year and compare those with pupils of similar ages, and with similar prior attainment outcomes, at a similar point, in previous years.

What are the previous trends?

When examining historical trends in Star Assessment results prior to the pandemic, we found that the progress pupils made in their scaled scores changed as pupils got older, with the rate of progress an average pupil makes falling as they progressed through their education.  In addition to this, pupils appear to make more progress at the start of the academic year, which then begins to flatten off later in the year.

We also know that results in the autumn term of any year are likely to be subject to the effects of normal summer learning loss. Our model takes all these points into account, so we can take a more accurate measure of the rates of progress and levels of attainment at a particular point in time.

Key findings

When examining the average learning loss in primary and secondary schools we found that all year groups experienced a learning loss in reading. In primary schools this was typically between 1.7 and 2.0 months, and in year 8 and year 9, 1.6 and 2.0 months respectively. Pupils also showed learning loss in mathematics, with pupils in primary schools on average having experienced a learning loss of just over three months.

Surprisingly perhaps, pupils who had just started year 7, saw the smallest learning loss at 0.9 months. One possible explanation for this is that this year group was out of school for less time than others. Schools were open to reception, year 1, year 2 and year 6 from the 1st June 2020 – while others were still receiving remote education. Our current measures of year 7 also only includes those pupils who attended an all-through or middle school. Future reports will be able to track the transition of pupils from primary to secondary school and this could have an impact on these results.

Regional disparities do appear to exist, with pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber seeing the greatest losses in their reading. Yet it should be noted that the differences between regions are relatively small once the historic rates of progress in those areas is examined, and all regions have experienced losses to some extent.

We also found schools with high levels of disadvantage have experienced higher levels of loss than other schools, particularly in secondary schools (2.2 months in schools with high free school meal eligibility and 1.5 months in schools with low free school meal eligibility). But importantly, we do not yet know the extent of learning loss at pupil level by disadvantage or prior attainment. Looking at whether different groups of pupils of the same age have suffered inequitably from lockdown is a major focus of forthcoming work.

Moving forwards

The findings begin to illustrate where the learning loss occurred and help to identify the catch-up needed for pupils in England. Future reports will monitor progress over the course of the year to help target support across the system. As we begin examining findings for the second stage, we know this information will be invaluable for policy makers, parents and school leaders using education technology to support pupils’ outcomes. We will continue to work with Schools, Trusts MAT leaders and the DfE to ensure that Star assessments help to provide valuable insight into the nature of learning loss and enable education professionals at all levels to act on this.

We understand this continues to be a challenging time for teachers and Senior Leadership teams across the education profession. We will do all we can to provide support to teaching staff tasked with the mission to support pupils with their transition back into school and deliver the national curriculum.

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