New study finds young students’ reading skills are 30% behind

Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) found that reading skills among young students are lagging what would be expected in a typical school year.

Their study analyzed oral reading fluency from a reading assessment given periodically throughout the year to first through fourth graders nationwide. Trends in students’ growth were traced back to 2018.

While COVID-19’s impact on learning isn’t fully known yet, the assessment results show that learning loss from last spring when schools closed down wasn’t fully recovered in fall 2020, reports Carrie Spector for Stanford News.

“It seems that these students, in general, didn’t develop any reading skills during the spring – growth stalled when schooling was interrupted and remained stagnant through the summer,” said Ben Domingue, an assistant professor at Stanford GSE and first author on the study, which was released by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a nonpartisan research network housed at Stanford.

“It picked up in the fall, which is a testament to the work that educators did in preparing for the new school year and their creativity in coming up with ways to teach,” Domingue said. “But that growth was not robust enough to make up for the gaps from the spring.”

Second and third graders’ reading skills were most affected, according to the study.

Overall, students’ reading fluency in second and third grade is now approximately 30 percent behind what would be expected in a typical year.

Reading fluency is fundamental for academic development more broadly, the researchers said, because problems with this skill can interfere with students’ ability to learn other subjects as they make their way through later grades.

Third grade literacy is critical to success in other course work. Unfortunately, too many students aren’t meeting grade-level reading proficiency. In Minnesota, 45 percent of third graders aren’t proficient readers — a percentage that has increased over the past couple of years based on state assessment results. National test results aren’t any better. In the Center’s most recent education report, national reading scores show that Mississippi black and Hispanic students outperform Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students, their academic progress is steadily improving (compared to Minnesota’s stagnant or in decline progress), and the state is getting these results with far less spending per pupil. Why? Because Mississippi has focused its dollars on literacy programs and making sure its teachers understand and are trained in the science of reading. The state is also not afraid to retain students in the third grade who score at the two lowest levels on its state reading assessments.

While the learning loss from COVID-19 is concerning, the study’s coauthor Heather Hough says the findings “do not need to be catastrophic.”

“We can build on this research by identifying practices that accelerate learning for students who’ve fallen behind, and by making sure schools have the resources they need.”

Efforts to improve early reading literacy have been made at the legislature, noting the importance of structured literacy and professional development that provides teachers with the skills needed to properly teach reading. Student success in subsequent grades and even outside of the classroom hinges on early literacy. Shifts in what’s prioritized during the school day are needed, and scientifically-sound reading instruction is a must.