Reading losses during the pandemic examined in new brief

Reading losses that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately affecting young Black and Hispanic students, according to a new research brief by K–12 curriculum and assessment company Amplify.

COVID-19 Means More Students Not Learning To Read” includes middle-of-school-year data from Amplify early literacy skills assessments administered to elementary schoolers across the country.

“While more students in all elementary grades and demographic groups have fallen behind, the COVID-related reading losses are concentrated in grades K and 1, and disproportionately among Black and Hispanic students in those grades,” the brief reads. “As compared to last year, there are now twice as many Black kindergarten students at great risk for not learning to read.”

Learning opportunities lost during the last year may have life-long consequences for students if they are not given additional instructional support, the brief states, adding that several studies show that without the extra support, there is almost a 90 percent chance that a first grader who is a poor reader will remain one.

Comparing pre-COVID mid-year data from the 2019–20 academic year to 2020–21, the percentage of kindergarteners who scored well below benchmark jumped from 28 percent to 47 percent. Amongst first graders, it rose from 26 percent to 43 percent. Grades two through five increased between 7 and 8 percent points and topped out at 36 percent (up from 28 percent) for fifth grade. Only data up to fifth grade was presented.

Disparities found along racial and ethnic student groups

Roughly 400,000 students enrolled in 1,400 predominantly large urban metropolitan area schools across 41 states were represented in the brief. Broken down by grade and racial/ethnic subgroup, the change in percent well below benchmark at mid-year compared to the same time in 2019–20 was highest for kindergartners at 27 percent for Black students, 25 percent for Hispanic students and 13 percent for white students. That was followed again by first grade where the change was 22 percent, 19 percent and 10 percent for Black, Hispanic and white students, respectively.

Susan Lambert, Amplify’s chief academic officer of elementary humanities, said that school districts should think about the challenges they’re being presented and make system-wide decisions based on data for spring and summer instruction into next year.

“The bottom line is that classrooms will need to dedicate more time to reading instruction in the early grades,” Lambert said. “Most students will need a double dose of strong core foundational skills instruction (grade-level instruction as well as the instruction they missed), and some students will need additional intervention. We can overcome this lost instruction, but it will take a deep commitment and changes to scheduling and staffing to help all our kids catch up and become the strong readers they can all be.”

California has billions of dollars in funding coming from the state and federal governments to help local educational agencies safely return children to campuses, address learning loss and support expanded learning opportunities like summer school and after school programs, tutoring and mental health services.