Reading & Literacy

Students’ Reading Losses Could Strain Schools’ Capacity to Help Them Catch Up

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 15, 2020 | Corrected: December 18, 2020 4 min read
 Braydan Finnerty, 2nd grade, chooses letter magnets off the board while doing a spelling exercise in front of the rest of the class at Beverly Gardens Elementary in Dayton, Ohio.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story noted an incorrect cost estimate for using daily tutoring to catch students up on lost instruction. The iReady study estimated it would cost $66 billion.

Children beginning their school careers during the pandemic are likely to need a lot more support than usual to build their foundational skills for reading.

The most comprehensive study to date of pandemic-related learning loss in the earliest grades finds that some 40 percent of 1st graders have come to school this fall significantly behind in early literacy skills—particularly around phonics—and they will need intensive interventions to prevent them from ending the year reading below grade level. The study confirms that even the youngest students are experiencing the so-called “COVID slide,” and counters some recent studies that suggested there have been minimal losses in reading.

Researchers from Amplify, a digital learning company, analyzed data from 400,000 students from more than 1,400 schools in 41 states who participated in DIBELS, a commonly used early literacy test. Unlike the computer-administered Growth-MAP and iReady assessments used in other recent analyses of learning loss, the DIBELS is given by teachers one-on-one with students, either in person or over video conference. Direct teacher observation helps control for potential parent influence or child technology difficulties during the test.

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Researchers tracked both the percentage of students scoring on grade level in various early literacy skills and the percentage who are considered in need of intensive intervention. Fewer than 20 percent of students who score at that level typically read on grade level by the end of the year.

Students from grades K-5 all saw fewer students scoring at grade level and more students scoring significantly below grade level in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, but Black and Hispanic students were particularly in need of support.

Among students of different racial groups, Black students had the most need for intensive reading interventions. Eleven percent more Black students in grades 4 and 5 needed intensive support this fall than last—twice as great a jump as for white and Hispanic students. In 1st grade, 17 percent more Black students, 13 percent more Hispanic students, and 9 percent more white students were significantly below grade level this fall.

The Amplify study comes on the heels of a flurry of new research clarifying the magnitude of the learning loss students are experiencing from the combination of sudden school closures last spring and shifting hybrid, in-person, and remote instructional formats this spring.

Those studies have laid out a picture of widening disparities between students in wealthy homes and those from low-income families, as well as greater academic losses for Black and Hispanic students whose communities have been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus itself.

One study of the Curriculum Associates iReady Platform, a computer-administered adaptive test, found this fall that the K-5 students in their sample learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of reading that grade-level peers would have learned the previous fall. But in schools with a majority of students of color, the learning loss was even greater—students learned only 59 percent of a typical year in math and 77 percent of a typical year in reading.

Costs of Remediation

The disruptions related to the pandemic hurt students’ foundational reading skills.

In particular, researchers found 1st grade students struggled more with phoneme segmentation and letter sounds, and 2nd graders showed significantly less progress in letter sounds, blending words, and fluency when reading aloud.

“One of the most expensive problems you can create is a kid who does not master phonemic awareness by the end of 1st grade,” said Larry Berger, chief executive officer of Amplify, which in addition to its assessments provides consulting to districts on using student data. “So even if you have limited money, you might want to move it toward that problem, because that failure to learn to read has cascading downstream effects that are well known. I think districts that are taking this seriously are saying OK, I have limited resources but this is a triage situation.”

That means school leaders may face major budget costs to catch up students who have missed out on basic skills. Amplify’s analysts estimated even a 5 percent increase in the number of students who need intensive interventions could stress schools’ budgets this year.

“When schools change from 27 percent to 40 percent of students [scoring significantly below grade level], that requires a massive capacity for reading interventions that they don’t have,” Berger said “This is a sign that some of the plans that have worked in the past for making sure you have enough capacity to do intervention are going to be insufficient to the magnitude of the slide we are seeing in early grades.”

Likewise, the iReady study estimated it could cost $42 billion to provide two-week intensive reading academies to catch up six months of instruction for half of the U.S. public schoolchildren who need it, and $66 billion to catch those students up on one to two years’ worth of lost instruction using daily tutoring over the course of a year.

In the District of Columbia public schools, which participated in the DIBELS study, Emily Hammett, the director of English/language arts instruction, said her teachers have seen more “unfinished learning” among students of color, English-language learners, and special education students, both in the DIBELS data and their own district tests. They are planning for the need for long-term academic supports to help students recover from the instruction they’ve missed as well as broader disruption in the community.

“For this entire school year, we’ve planned out what that unfinished learning was for each student,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of [professional development] with instructional coaches on learning variability and perception of disability and basically making sure that students furthest from opportunity have teachers who are knowledgeable about differentiation.”

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