Elementary students are regaining the ground they lost during the pandemic at a faster pace than older students, according to new research, but many K-12 students are still years away from a full recovery.

Comparing the most recent nationwide Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment data from 8.3 million students in grades 3-8 in reading and math, researchers from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) testing group found that elementary school students had the most learning recovery last school year of any student group. Meanwhile, students in middle school either made slower progress recovering from learning loss or remained stagnant, according to a report from EdSource.

The data may be a sign of hope for younger students, who researchers initially anticipated would have the toughest time recovering from the pandemic’s disruption to schools. Schools and districts apparently kept that in mind when planning their learning recovery strategies.

NWEA now anticipates that elementary students, on average, will fully recover from pandemic learning loss in three or more years. Older students are expected to recover in five or more years.

When the pandemic was raging in the fall of 2020, hundreds of thousands of families across the country opted not to enroll their children in public school, with the biggest groups being kindergartners, and students in grades one through three. Researchers, at the time, were concerned that those students would struggle most to adapt when returning to school.

California K-12 schools lost 271,000 students since COVID struck in spring 2020. Enrollment as of Census Day, always the first Wednesday of October, was 5.89 million students for the 2021-22 school year; five years ago, it was 6.23 million.

Learning loss was also a top concern of policymakers, which is why billions in federal American Rescue Plan funds have been earmarked specifically for schools to address the issue.

Research has found that the range of abilities among students in the same grade had widened in the 2021-22 school year.

Students across all grades had bigger gains in math than reading, according to the study. Prior research indicated that the pandemic has had larger negative impacts on math achievement compared with reading achievement.

Identifying the most effective methods and strategies used to get students back on track remains a concern for everyone in education right now. While NWEA is researching what worked and what didn’t, it’s still too early to say.

A similar analysis by NWEA at the end of the 2020-21 school year painted a starker picture of the state of learning loss: Data indicated that across all grades, the amount of unfinished learning was growing, meaning students ended the year even further behind.

The progress that students made last year was shared across income levels and ethnic groups, but the achievement disparities affecting Latino, Black and American Indian or Native Alaskan students have only widened since the pandemic began, according to the NWEA’s research. The research also found that students experienced lower academic gains than a “typical year” prior to the pandemic, with students in high-poverty schools remaining disproportionately impacted.

The improvements that students made last year should be celebrated, but students – especially older students – still have a long road ahead to get back on track. Academic recovery among middle school students either remained stagnant or fell further back last year. For some students, full recovery would not be attainable before the end of high school, according to NWEA’s research.

NWEA’s estimated timeline of full recovery extends further than the deadlines for federal recovery funds. The $15 billion for schools and districts authorized by Congress in 2021 under the American Rescue Plan has a use-it-or-lose-it deadline of January 2025.