COVID-19’s impact on learning loss and learning inequality in Colombia
COVID-19’s impact on learning loss and learning inequality in Colombia

COVID-19’s impact on learning loss and learning inequality in Colombia

1. Introduction

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on humanity worldwide cannot be overstated. To date, there have been over 6 million deaths across the globe documented. Global economic growth slowed, and many more people fell into poverty. World Bank discretion that due to the pandemic, about 97 million more people are living in poverty and the global poverty rate will increase from 7.8 to 9.1 percent. As the global economy begins to return, the pandemic will lead to rising poverty and growing inequality worldwide.

Meanwhile, leading global institutions as well as governments have been primarily focused on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 through vaccines, tests and treatments, and fiscal and monetary policies to set the necessary conditions for private investment, job creation and economic growth. The urgent need to implement policies and programs to mitigate the lasting consequences of COVID-19 school closures on learning has received much less attention globally.1

In this map, I focus on Colombia, which like most countries globally closed its schools in March 2020. As in most of Latin America, Colombian schools remained closed for over a year and they only began to gradually reopen in July 2021 I examine the impact of the pandemic on student learning by analyzing trends in students ‘performance in national assessments from 2015 to 2019 and comparing them with students’ performance in the same national assessments conducted in 2020 and 2021. I also examine the extent to which students in subnational territories (ETCs) -the similar to US states, except that some are certified by the national government to have more autonomy in spending than others – with different lengths of school closure periods experienced varying levels of learning loss.

My results indicate that COVID-19 had a significant impact on student learning in Colombia. The effects were greatest for female students and students from richer backgrounds, a surprising result, as studies from other countries have found that students from socio-economically disadvantaged households suffered greater learning losses than their peers from richer households. A plausible explanation is that in Colombia, students with a richer background tend to go to better schools. I also find that learning losses due to COVID-19 were lower in ETCs that provided access to personal schooling more quickly.

2. Data

I use data on student performance from the Colombian National Institute for Education Evaluation (ICFES). Since 2000, Colombian students in the 11th grade (the last year of compulsory education) have been required to participate in the Saber 11 assessment. The one exception was 2020, where the assessments did not take place due to COVID-19.

Saber 11 evaluates students in reading, math, social skills, science and the English language, and it also collects background information on students’ socio-demographic variables. The subject assessments are scored on a scale from 0-100 points, and thus the maximum global score for all subjects is 500 points. I constructed a panel that includes a total of 2,754,862 observations of Colombian students’ test scores in all Saber 11 subjects for the years 2015-2021 (except 2020). By estimating the impact of COVID-19 on students ‘learning, I included variables to account for differences according to students’ socioeconomic background, gender, and ETC at his or her school.

3. Fund

The impact of COVID-19 on student learning

I analyzed the impact of the pandemic on student learning by comparing students’ learning outcomes as measured by the national Saber 11 assessments during the five years prior to the pandemic (2015-19) and two years after the outbreak of COVID-19 (2020-2021). Overall, the pandemic led to a decrease in the standard deviation of 0.2 in average Saber 11 scores from previous years (see table 1). While learning losses occurred in most of the subjects, the largest losses were in English, social studies and critical reading (see Appendix Table A1).

Table 1. Impact of COVID-19 on standardized Saber 11 test results, by topic

Source: Author’s analysis using Saber 11 national assessments.

Female students suffered greater learning losses (on average equivalent to 0.2 standard deviations less in Saber 11) than their male counterparts across all assessed subjects. Interestingly, students from socio-economically distributed households experienced greater learning losses than their peers from poorer backgrounds, ranging from 0.4 to over 0.6 standard deviations less in the Saber 11 assessments (see Appendix Table A1). A plausible explanation is that in Colombia, richer students are more likely to go to higher quality schools, and thus the nationwide school closures affected them more. This finding is consistent with recent research conducted by Barrera, Quintero, Ca├▒izares, and Arango (2022).

Impact of COVID-19 on student learning due to differences in the length of school closures across sub-national units

Due to the federal nature of Colombia’s education system, subnational entities had decision-making authority over the timing of the reopening of schools. The resulting variation in the length of school closures makes it possible to estimate the extent to which personal schooling contributes to the performance of higher students.

Figure 1. The relationship between the proportion of pupils in school due to COVID-19 and change in learning, after ETC (2020-2021)

Figure 1: The relationship between the proportion of pupils in school due to COVID-19 and change in learning, after ETC (2020-2021)Source: Author’s analysis using Saber 11 national assessments.

As shown in figure 1, the data suggest that students in ETCs who reopened schools previously suffered lower levels of learning loss. A 10 percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils who had access to personal schooling is associated with a half-point increase in the Saber 11 average score (see Appendix Table A2).

4. Discussion

The impact of the COVID-19 school closures on student learning in Colombia and the rest of the world is deeply worrying. Abundant research has shown that student learning is associated with higher earnings, lower unemployment and increased economic growth for entire nations.2 Prior to COVID-19, Colombia was ranked 61st among 77 participating countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2018 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), and the COVID-19 school closures threaten to strike back many years of progress in expanding access for quality education in Colombia and in large parts of the globe.

Across most topics assessed among students in the past year, I found that COVID-19 had a significant impact on student learning in Colombia. However, female students suffered greater learning losses than their male peers. It is noteworthy that students with a higher income background suffered greater learning losses than their peers from lower-income households. This finding suggests a reduction in learning gaps in Colombia across socio-economic status.

My results shed light on the role that personal schooling plays in student learning. First, I found that subnational governments that made personalized schooling available to more students had better student learning outcomes in 2021. Importantly, the results suggest that the quality of personalized schooling matters as Colombian students from higher-income householdswhich tend to go to higher quality (often private) schools, so do students from poor householdsled greater learning.

A clear political consequence is that keeping schools open should be a priority for Colombia. In addition, it is crucial for Colombia to improve the quality of schools, especially those serving disadvantaged populations, to ensure that all students acquire the skills they need to thrive.

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