Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

Students’ Early Literacy Skills Are Rebounding. See What the Data Show

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 27, 2023 3 min read
Latasha Johnson teaches reading skills to a kindergarten classroom at Walnut Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. on May 25, 2022.
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After years of academic interventions, more young students are reading on track than at any time since the pandemic began, according to new data from 43 states.

For the first time since 2019-20, the majority of students in every grade, from K-3, are on track to tackle grade-level reading by the end of the year—though no grade has yet matched its pre-pandemic performance levels, according to data from the curriculum and assessment group Amplify.

The new data also show that Black and Hispanic students in many grades are improving faster than average, shrinking the academic gaps that had widened during school disruptions.

“We know that there’s been a lot of time and effort, blood, sweat, and tears put into trying to help these kids who are impacted as well as kids that have come along later who are less impacted,” said Paul Gazzerro, the director of data analysis for Amplify, “and it does seem like some of those efforts are starting to pay off.”

Amplify researchers tracked the performance of more than 300,000 students in 43 states. All of the students participated in mCLASS, an assessment and intervention system based on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), a commonly used observational test conducted by teachers in live or video sessions with individual students. The researchers compared data from the mid-year tests taken from 2018-19 through 2022-23.

The results are the latest evidence that elementary students who started school during the pandemic continue to recover academically, but that many students still show holes in foundational skills that become evident as they move to more advanced work.

For example, only 3rd graders, who were in kindergarten at the start of 2020, showed no overall improvement in the number of students on track for reading since last year. Hispanic 3rd graders held steady since last year, but there were 1 percent fewer Asian, Black, and white 3rd graders on track in reading this year than last.

“In 3rd grade, we sort of have this expectation that kids have mastered phonemic awareness and then are getting really good at that word-level reading,” said Susan Lambert, Amplify’s chief academic officer. “My guess is that a lot of what’s happening here in the 2nd and 3rd grade data is that they really missed working with sounds and understanding how the discrete sounds of the language work, because that would have come in kindergarten and 1st [grades].”

By contrast, since last year in K-2, the share of students on track in reading rose 4-5 percentage points for all students, as well as 4-9 percentage points for Black students and 5-7 percentage points for Hispanic students.

“It’s not great news in the sense that it’s not that [Black and Hispanic students] are doing better than they were before the pandemic,” Gazzerro said. “But at least we’re not seeing this achievement gap continue to get amplified in the classroom. It’s not a haves/have nots story as much as it was before, where all the gains are coming amongst the most advantaged students. It does seem like those less advantaged students who have been hit hardest from the pandemic are bouncing back a bit more.”

Intensive interventions still needed

While more students overall seem ready for grade-level reading, the data also suggest about a third of students continue to read “far behind” where they should be at this point in the school year.

“In practical terms that means that … these are students that need small group intervention in order to catch up. They’re not really ready to function in the classroom without additional assistance that goes beyond a little strategic support,” Gazzerro said. “We’re identifying those students that need intensive support.”

Fewer students of any demographic group or grade were identified as being far behind this year compared to last, though 2 percent more Asian and Black 3rd graders were far behind in 2022-23 than during the prior year.

“At least we are now on that path where there’s hope that we’re going to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels,” Lambert said. “The only caveat I would add is that pre-pandemic levels aren’t our target goal."Hopefully,” she added, “we can buckle down and say, ‘look, what we’re doing is making an impact. Let’s keep applying that over time so that we can actually exceed those pre-pandemic levels.’”

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