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The learning deficits of fourth-graders in Germany after the period of corona-related school closures and “homeschooling” are up to six months on average nationwide. In the case of students who have recently immigrated from abroad, it can even be up to a year that the usual learning gains are missing.

These are the central results of a study published on Friday by the Berlin Institute for Quality Development in Education (IQB) at Humboldt University.

“All in all, there are unfavorable trends in all subjects and areas of competence that fourth-graders in Germany achieved after more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions in school operations,” says the conclusion of the IQB education trends 2021.

It is the third investigation into the abilities of children at the end of elementary school in German and mathematics since 2011 – and the first nationwide study to examine for a representative group to what extent the school abilities in the two main subjects have changed during the Corona period.

Around 27,000 fourth-grade students at almost 1,500 schools in all 16 countries took part in the tests on reading, listening and spelling, as well as mathematics in sub-areas such as numbers and operations, space and form, sizes and measurements.

It is always about the question of whether the fourth graders achieve the educational standards of the Conference of Ministers of Education (KMK). The study was led by IQB director Petra Stanat.

The educational standards that have been in force since 2005/6 describe what pupils should be able to do in core subjects at the transition from one type of school to another or at the end of school. It is therefore about which skills children and young people need in order to get ahead in school or to get on well with vocational training or university studies.

One result: 18.8 percent did not meet the minimum standards in reading, 30.4 percent in spelling and 21.8 percent in mathematics. Compared to 2016, these “risk groups” of up to a third of the students who lack the basics in reading and arithmetic have each increased by a good six percentage points (reading and math) or by a good eight percentage points (spelling).

The nationwide standard IQB comparative work was written between April and August 2021, when the schools reopened after the lockdown ended. The participation rates were well over 90 percent across the country.

However, only the nationwide results have now been published – in a 20-page short report. The educational researchers pulled this from their data pool in advance because of the great public interest in the learning gaps caused by Corona.

The entire study, which will then also allow comparisons between Hamburg and Berlin or between Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, has been announced for October.

The learning levels are compared with the IQB education trend of 2016 – and alarming losses can be seen here. On average, the declines in reading literacy correspond to about a third of a school year, a quarter of a school year in spelling and even half a year in listening.

Listening is about “understanding content while listening, asking specific questions and expressing understanding and non-understanding”. This ability obviously suffered particularly during the acute Corona period, when many children were left to their own devices at home and had no contact with teachers or classmates.

Fourth graders, whose parents are both foreign and who were born abroad themselves, have particularly bad problems here. Based on the 2016 mean of 401 listening points for first-generation immigrants, they fell by 54 points to 348 in 2021.

Since the expected increase in learning is 60 points per school year when listening as well as reading, the gap to your own group “before Corona” is almost a year.

Compared to children without an immigrant background, the gap has also increased significantly. They stood at an average of 510 points in 2016 and 494 points in 2021 and have a mathematical learning deficit of a few months. Children of the second generation of immigrants who were born in Germany do slightly better than the first generation with 440 (2016) and 404 (2021) points, but they too have lost a lot of skills.

This picture runs through all tested areas, whereby the already existing and recently growing performance differences in spelling are less clear. Overall, the authors of the IQB education trends state that the “immigration-related disparities” have increased sharply since 2016. This also applies to the social differences that result from the socio-economic status of families.

Since school closures began in March 2020, the greatest dangers of learning at home have been seen in the socio-economic status and the educational background of the parents, which is often related to this: deficits in school would arise above all among children and young people who lacked a laptop in their parents’ home or who did not have their own desk and are less used to independent learning.

In addition, the parents could hardly help them due to a lack of German and familiarity with the school material.

In the IQB education trend, these factors are not analyzed. Rather, the question is whether the deficits identified are actually caused by the pandemic. This could “not be clearly determined”, write the authors around educational researcher Petra Stanat.

On the one hand, the fourth graders had only been in regular school operations for a few weeks during the test period and were therefore still acutely impaired. On the other hand – and this weighs more heavily – “unfavorable trends could already be observed” between 2011 and 2016.

In particular, the skills of children with a fresh immigrant background had already decreased significantly in all areas of German and mathematics.

Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that these developments “would have continued later even without a pandemic”. In fact, the classes have become significantly more heterogeneous since 2016: in 2011, around a quarter still had an immigrant background, in 2016 it was a good third – and in 2021 it was already 38 percent.

The proportion of newcomers rose from two to almost four to a good ten percent of fourth graders today – no doubt a result of wars and expulsions such as in Syria and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, however, Petra Stanat’s team came to the conclusion that the restrictions caused by the pandemic “are at least partly responsible for the changes observed”. Because the trend towards deteriorating skills has increased in all areas – as have the social and immigration-related differences.

The fourth-graders themselves stated that they assessed their skills in German as somewhat lower in 2021 than in 2016. The study also says that subject-related interest in both German and mathematics has decreased. However, these changes are not very large.

At the same time, the children’s satisfaction with school has increased slightly, while their self-perceived social integration in the class has decreased slightly. “Both school satisfaction and social integration are still high, regardless of the immigrant background of the children,” the authors emphasize.

“Catching up after Corona”, the federal government’s billion-euro program, which finances school and social support offers, is by far not enough, according to the educational researchers, to compensate for the deficits.

The possible effect of the program could not yet be recorded with the IQB tests, but it is already clear today: The high proportion of children who fail to meet minimum standards cannot be “permanently reduced by temporary programs”.

Long-term and sustainable support strategies for “pupils in special risk situations” are necessary. Above all, the focus must be placed early on that all children and young people achieve the minimum standards in order to develop skills “that are fundamental for their further educational career”.

Absolutely, say British researchers, who assume that students have fundamentally benefited from the situation. For Germany, too, the economists at Oxford Economics expect that “Generation Z” born between 1997 and 2012 will not suffer any negative consequences from the pandemic, according to the economic advisers at Oxford Economics.

On the contrary, they could become the engine of growth in an increasingly digitized economy in the coming decades. They would have acquired the necessary skills, especially during the pandemic.

The German youth researcher Klaus Hurrelmann, Professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, sees the negative effects of the pandemic especially on those who have poor educational prerequisites and low digital skills.

On the other hand, he expects positive effects from well-educated and digitally savvy young people. They would be even more courted by companies in the future than was the case before the pandemic. “The young generation is 1000 times better prepared than the older generation.”

Even among the students themselves, there is an expectation that “Generation Corona” is more of a seal of quality. Dario Schramm, Secretary General of the Federal Student Conference, had expected learning effects in the second year of the pandemic from the fact that you had fought your way through this challenging time and had to learn so many things at lightning speed that others normally take longer to learn. He spoke of a “turbo maturing process” due to the pandemic.