The Lowdown Hub

A Surge of research reveals After the sliding backward the most vulnerable worst affected generation

After the U.S. education system fractured into Zoom screens last spring, experts feared millions of children would fall behind. Hard evidence now shows they were right.

A flood of new data — on the national, state, and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education.


A study being released this week by McKinsey & Co. estimates that the shift to a remote school in the spring set White students back by one to three months in math, while students of color lost three to five months. As the coronavirus pandemic persists through this academic year, McKinsey said, losses will escalate.


“I think we should be very concerned about the risk of a lost generation of students,” said former education secretary John B. King Jr., who is now president of Education Trust, an advocacy and research group focused on equity issues.

Parents and teachers: Tell The Washington Post how your kids are handling online classes


The McKinsey study echoes a half dozen other national reports released in recent days. They all find that students regressed because of lost classroom time in the spring, particularly in math, though the reports vary in degree of the losses and in disparities among student groups.


Separately, data released by multiple school districts show a sharp increase in failing grades this fall, particularly for the most vulnerable students.


And troubling data is emerging about college application rates. Applications for federal student aid were down 16 percent this fall, as were submissions to the Common Application, a portal used by hundreds of colleges. The drop there was larger from Hispanic and low-income students and those whose parents did not attend college.


“We were expecting great challenges, but when you see it happening it is heartbreaking,” said Jenny Rickard, Common App’s president and chief executive.

A computer screen shows a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher leading an online class. Many of the nation’s school systems have been largely remote since March.

A computer screen shows a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher leading an online class. Many of the nation’s school systems have been largely remote since March. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Experts have been predicting learning losses since it became clear that the pandemic would shutter schools for an extended period. Some predictions were overblown, and some recent studies find the lost learning has been moderate rather than severe. But in general, the concerns appear to have been warranted, with greater losses expected as the school year progresses.