Online Learning During COVID-19 Linked With Lower Test Scores

A new study has found that the more schools kept kids online, the worse their pass rates on state standardized tests were.


A new study has found even more evidence that extended school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to considerable learning loss among American schoolchildren—this time, directly linking higher failure rates on standardized tests with more time spent out of the classroom and in virtual instruction.

The new study, published in the American Economic Review: Insights this month, looked at data from 11 state standardized tests across grades 3–8 and found that pass rates on these tests had declined significantly from 2019 to 2021, with an average decline of 12.8 percentage points in math and 6.8 percentage points in English language arts. 

However, the study found that schools that offered fully in-person instruction, as opposed to fully online instruction, did not experience such a decline in test scores. "Offering fully in-person learning, rather than fully virtual learning, reduced pass rate losses by approximately 13 percentage points in math and approximately 8 percentage points in" English, the study reads. Even offering hybrid instruction lessened the blow: Hybrid schools reduced their educational losses by "7 percentage points in math, and 5 to 6 in [English]," when compared with fully online schools, according to the study.

"Our analyses demonstrate that hybrid or virtual schooling modes cannot support student learning in the same way as fully in-person instruction can, at least during this elementary and middle school period," the study concludes. "As such, educational impacts of schooling mode on students' learning outcomes should be a critical factor in policy responses to future pandemics or other large-scale schooling disruptions."

The study's findings should hardly be surprising. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores released last year showed staggering declines in performance that wiped out two decades of improvement in math and reading scores among a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders. 

And just last month, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that American public schools reported, on average, that 49 percent of their students were behind grade level in at least one subject at the beginning of the 2022–23 school year—up from just 36 percent before the pandemic. 

This latest study just confirms what many had assumed from currently available data and what many had warned could be the result of extended school closures. Extensive online-only instruction doesn't help kids learn, and when we keep kids online for months or years, the consequences are steep. These reports and this latest study should, as the study suggests, "serve as a starting point for education leaders and policymakers as they weigh where to target funding moving forward in order to support student learning."