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One Year into Pandemic, Far Fewer Young Students are on Target to Learn How to Read, Tests Show

By Linda Jacobson | February 24, 2021

In the fall, kindergartners were 6 percent less likely to be on track in reading compared to the 2019-20 school year. At mid-year, they were 18 percent less likely to be on track. (Amplify)

Twenty percent fewer kindergartners are on track to learn how to read than their peers were at this time last year, and most haven’t made much progress since the fall, according to new assessment data released Wednesday.

Thirty-seven percent of this year’s kindergartners are on-track in early reading skills, compared to 55 percent during the 2019-20 school year, just prior to the pandemic. Among first graders, 43 percent are on target, compared to 58 percent last year.

“Teachers are working hard. They’re doing what they can,” said Paul Gazzerro, director of data analysis at Amplify, a K-8 curriculum provider that collected the data from about 400,000 students across 1,400 schools in 41 states. “We’re just not seeing the bounce back that we’re hoping for.”

While all students are performing worse than they would have in a normal year, the gaps are especially pronounced for Black and Hispanic students. Compared to the prior year, 13 percent more white kindergarteners are considered at-risk, while for Black and Hispanic kindergarteners, the increases are 27 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

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The results provide further evidence of the crushing effect school closures have had on young children’s early reading development — to the point they might not catch up, Gazzerro said. Amplify’s experts, however, said that while teachers tend to resort to lower-level instruction when children fall behind, it’s important to “double down” with grade-level material and that K-1 provides a key window to close the gap.

“We have a sort of once-in-a-generation chance to catch up these students,” said Susan Lambert, Amplify’s chief academic officer for elementary humanities. She added that providing additional literacy instruction on top of what schools normally schedule could also address “persistent gaps” for students who were already struggling before the pandemic.

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Leaders of the Kyrene School District, near Phoenix, Arizona, shared their results on Wednesday’s call with reporters, noting that their results mirror the national data, with more students in the “well below benchmark” category than there would have been in a normal year.

“One of my concerns is budgeting and how we’re going to fill in all these gaps,” said Sharyn Weinheimer, the district’s academic intervention coordinator.

Teachers used the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — or DIBELS — assessment to directly measure students’ reading, either in person or virtually, which eliminates the chance that students taking an assessment at home might cheat by looking up the answers or getting outside help.

Gazzerro said that they saw little difference between students who took the assessment remotely and those who took it in school, adding further confidence in the results.

This is the second time Amplify has released data showing the impact of the pandemic and school closures on students’ early reading development. In the fall, the company released data from the beginning of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, showing that first graders experienced the greatest drop in scores beyond a normal “summer slide.” The percentage of first graders considered “well-below benchmark” increased from 27 percent in fall 2019 to 40 percent in fall 2020.

Reading expert Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago,said one advantage of using DIBELS is that it allows educators to examine the impact of the pandemic on an age group other assessments typically miss.

DIBELS, based at the University of Oregon, also has a large database for making comparisons between students tested in a normal year and those learning to read during the pandemic.

The schools in the study were more urban and served almost twice as many Hispanic and half as many white students than schools nationally.

DIBELS has come in for criticism from some reading experts because it focuses on a narrow aspect of learning to read. In the lower grades, for example, the assessment asks students to read and identify the sounds in nonsense wordslike “kex” or “lat.” The method determines fluency — how quickly a student can identify a word.

Students, especially those with more advanced skills, sometimes struggle to make sense of the nonsense words, said Rachael Gabriel, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. They might turn them into the next closest real word and end up with lower scores, she said. The newest edition of the assessment includes revisions to prevent that confusion.

In the context of school closures, Gabriel said it’s likely that many“beginning readers missed a lot of beginning reading instruction along with opportunities for one-on-one feedback on their practice.” But it’s also possible some students gained more skills than they would have in a normal year because of being exposed to more vocabulary at home with adults or having more time to read on their own more than they did in school, she said.

Michael Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, said he’s encouraged by Tennessee’s recent passage of a $160 million package that includes a phonics-based literacy law requiring schools to better identify and provide interventions for students lacking “foundational” skills.

“One of the things that I think is clear a year into the pandemic is that teaching young children is very, very difficult online,” he said, adding that the Tennessee legislation “combines real dollars and a clear point of view on how to teach reading with a practical understanding that this has been done virtually.”

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