Students suffered drops in reading skill during COVID pandemic

Students suffered drops in reading skill during COVID pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a troubling impact on the reading skills of school kids in the youngest grades.

A series of new studies indicate that roughly one-third of the youngest school kids are behind on reading benchmarks, appreciably higher than before the pandemic.

For kindergarten students nationwide, the percentage of students at highest risk for not learning to read rose 8 percent during the pandemic, from 29 percent in the middle of the 2019-20 school year to 37 percent in the middle of the 2021-22 school year, according to a study conducted by Amplify, a curriculum and assessment company.

Black and Hispanic students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade have been “disproportionately impacted” by learning loss, the study found.

Another study, conducted in Virginia, found that about 35 percent in the state scored below their expected levels in fall 2021 — a 20-year low that the researchers characterized as “alarming.”

“Especially alarming, overall K-2 Fall 2021 scores indicate the highest percentage of students scoring below benchmark at grade-level entry ever observed at the fall assessment,” reads the University of Virginia study.

Teacher helping student.
Early education teachers are noting steep proficiency deficits, particularly in kindergarten and first grade.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

“Further, Fall 2021 rates of below-benchmark scores among first and second grade students were the highest documented in PALS history in those grades at fall assessment.”

A study conducted by Curriculum Associates, published in November, concluded that early elementary grades “have not yet caught up to pre-pandemic on-grade level performance.”

The studies were first reported by the New York Times.

Thirty-five percent of K-2 students in Virginia scored below their expected levels in fall 2021.

Some 33 percent of second-grade students are not ready for reading at their grade’s level — 9 percentage points higher than before the pandemic. For third-grade students, the figure is 38 percent, or seven points higher than before COVID-19 kept kids out of school buildings.

Experts said the pandemic has created the dire situation.

“We’re in new territory,” Dr. Tiffany P. Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, told the Times about the pandemic’s effect on reading proficiency.

Students with hands raised.
In New York City, already declining literacy among the city’s youngest kids has reached “crisis” levels.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Hogan labeled the long-term risk to those reduced reading skills “pretty dramatic.”

In the Boston area, 60 percent of students at some schools with high levels of poor students have been classified as at high risk for low reading levels, Hogan told the paper.

Dr. Tamara Cella — a phonics expert who in 2016 left the city Department of Education — works as a private school teacher and tutor, which she told the Times “pays extremely well.” But Cella expressed concern about students whose parents aren’t wealthy enough to afford private instruction.

The fall 2021 rates of below-benchmark scores reached a 20-year high that researchers at UVA called “alarming.”

“That feeling of guilt comes over me,” she reportedly said. “What about the kids in the Bronx?”

In New York City, already declining literacy among the city’s youngest kids accelerated during the pandemic — and has reached “crisis” levels, experts told The Post.

“I don’t use that word lightly,” said literacy specialist Karen Vaites. “But I would use it here.”

Student doing remote learning.
The limitations of remote learning have exacerbated existing literacy teaching issues, experts say.
Christopher Sadowski

“Every time you look at a reading assessment where we can do a comparison to pre-pandemic, there is a dramatic decline,” she said. “And they are concentrated in K through second grade.”

Vaites lamented that the city spends more per pupil than any other major metro area and has still been unable to lift literacy rates. The pandemic, she said, has only exacerbated the problem.

“If there was a teaching issue before the pandemic, you can promise that it didn’t get addressed during the pandemic, because schools were distracted by the shift to remote learning. If anything, teachers were disrupted.”

The percentage of students in Virginia deemed at high risk for below-benchmark reading levels is growing.

Sources told The Post that early education teachers are noting steep proficiency deficits, particularly in kindergarten and first grade.

During a recent orientation at PS 770 in Brooklyn, school officials told parents that phonics instruction that would normally be given in kindergarten was now being provided in the first grade due to the limitations of remote learning. A DOE source said other schools are compelled to take the same approach.

New Schools Chancellor David Banks has made improving literacy — especially among black and Latino youth — a priority. Banks has plainly stated that  the curricular approach of city schools, which does not stress phonics at an early age, has been a failure and needs to be revamped.

There are disproportionately higher rates of below-benchmark scores among students who are
black and Hispanic, which was found in the Virginia study.

Findings on the reading deficit for younger students came as the heads of more than 20 top early education programs in the Big Apple signed a letter calling on Mayor Eric Adams to end masking mandates for 2- to 4-year-olds, citing face coverings’ detrimental impact on children’s development.

“We know firsthand that younger kids face serious drawbacks while masking, despite the limited public health benefit, including negative impacts on learning, social, and speech development,” it reads. “Studies continue to demonstrate the highly negative trade-offs for this age group.”

Though Adams has vowed to keep public schools open and announced last week that children in kindergarten through 12th grade will no longer be required to mask up, early-education students age 4 and under and those in day care centers will still have to do so.

Empty classroom.
While schools are open for in-person learning in New York, attendance has lagged in the city.
Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And not all cities have had continuous in-person schooling.

In Chicago, parents were sent into a frenzy when the city’s teachers union chose to switch to remote learning amid the December and January COVID-19 surge.

And while schools are open for in-person learning in New York, attendance has lagged in the Big Apple.

On a Thursday in January, at least half of students at more than 50 schools in the five boroughs were absent.

The rates of below-benchmark levels in first and second grade in the fall 2021 assessment were the lowest in PALS history.

It may be difficult to measure exactly how far behind Big Apple students may be.

New York’s high school Regents exams scheduled for January were canceled due to the surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant. That came after in spring 2021, about 80 percent of Big Apple students between third and eighth grades did not take annual state exams intended to gauge math and English proficiency.

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