Rural school districts suffered the smallest academic setbacks in math during COVID compared to urban and suburban systems, yet simultaneously the largest losses in reading, new data show.

The puzzling finding comes from figures released Friday by education researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities. Their new resource, the Education Recovery Scorecard, compiles test scores from roughly 4,000 schools that serve some 12 million students in third through eighth grades across 29 states and the District of Columbia. Their work presents the first school system-level analysis of student learning through the pandemic.

Students in urban and suburban schools were 65% and 54% of a school year behind in math, respectively, according to the Scorecard; yet young people at rural schools were buffered somewhat, losing half a year. Meanwhile in reading, where drops were less dramatic overall, rural students fell behind by a third of a school year while urban and suburban students were just 29% and 24% of a year back.

Focusing on math scores, where COVID losses were more stark, Harvard education professor Thomas Kane said his findings are relatively good news for rural schools.

“The average rural district fared better than the average urban district,” he said in an email.

The reasons explaining the trend still remain something of a mystery, added his research partner, Stanford education professor Sean Reardon.

“We haven’t had a chance yet to dig into possible explanations for why we see some difference between rural and urban districts,” he said.

The Scorecard’s analysis also includes town school districts, which are typically less remote and more populated than rural districts, but further from city centers than suburban districts. Town school systems had drops in math similar to their suburban counterparts and losses in reading slightly less severe than rural districts.

Read the full article about rural districts by Asher Lehrer-Small at The 74.