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Mode of Learning Linked to Slight COVID-19 Rebound in 2022


In 2021, ACT research examined the effects of the pandemic on student learning. This year, we revisited the data to see what, if any, gains had been made as students returned to the classroom following widespread disruption due to the pandemic. Despite inconsistencies in mode of learning, ACT recently found signs that academic achievement may be stabilizing with the class of 2023, as most students have returned to in-person learning.

Studies, including ACT’s pandemic-related research, have documented the pandemic-era declines in student achievement, with pronounced losses in math and milder losses in reading. Measuring trends in ACT test scores helps to understand the depth of the disrupted learning that students have experienced as the pandemic’s effects have lingered across multiple school years. It’s also our hope that this information will help provide insights across the education ecosystem and ensure that student learning continues to rebound.

While observing trends we found signs of a slight rebound in academic achievement for 11th graders of 2022, relative to 11th graders of 2021. Despite the slight improvement, ACT Composite scores were still lower for the 2022 11th grade students, compared to pre-pandemic students. The 2022 score rebounds were not observed for all racial/ethnic groups: Scores rebounded slightly for students who are Black or white students but decreased slightly for students who are Hispanic, Native American, or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander.

How did mode of learning affect academic achievement?

While students’ experiences with learning at home during the pandemic were mixed, students told us that they felt school closures might affect their academic achievement—37% of students felt school closures would affect their academic preparedness “a great deal,” and another 51% said “somewhat”.

Data collected before and during the pandemic reflect that in-person learning leads to greater academic achievement than learning online. Further, new research from Harvard found that “remote instruction was a primary driver of widening achievement gaps,” estimating that districts with a high proportion of students living in poverty opting for remote learning will require almost all of their federal aid to promote student academic recovery.

ACT’s research also examined mode of learning differences. ACT surveyed students in the 11th grade in 2022 and found that the delivery of instruction varied across student and school demographic groups during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. Students of color, female students, and students attending urban schools were more likely to attend school online. While only 22% of the students attended school exclusively in-person during the 2020-2021 school year, the number jumped to 87% during the 2021-2022 school year.

ACT’s research suggests that mode of learning matters—students who learned in-person had an average ACT Composite score of about 1.1 points higher than their peers who learned online. The analysis used students’ eighth grade state test scores and their 11th grade ACT test scores and accounted for differences across mode of learning groups. The results suggest that more in-person schooling was related to more academic growth.

While the effects of the pandemic will likely persist for several years, ACT’s research shows modest yet positive signs of score rebounds for 11th graders of 2022, forecasting what learning gains might look like for the graduating class of 2023. For student achievement to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels, accelerated learning must continue for future students, with a special focus on recovery for Hispanic, Native American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students and students from low-income families.