State’s youngest students struggled with reading during remote learning

The year of learning remotely was not a good one academically for North Carolina’s youngest students.

Testing data show that only 38% of first-graders proficient in reading during the 2020-21 school year. That was a significant drop from the 2018-19 school year when 71% of first- graders were proficient on reading tests.

The U.S. Department of Education waived testing requirements in the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic. It required testing last school year to assess learning loss.

“It goes without saying that our earliest learners took a hard hit during this pandemic,” Amy Rhyne, state director of director Early Learning told members of the State Board of Education on Wednesday. “Now more than ever, we have to ensure there is a solid plan in place to support the gaps that have been created during this time.”

Rhyne’s report showed that only 43.5% of second-graders were proficient in reading last school year. In 2018-19, 78% of them were proficient on state reading tests.

Meanwhile, 43% of third-graders were proficient during the pandemic compared to 57% in the 2018-19 school year.

The report also showed that 37,000 third-graders were eligible for priority enrollment in summer reading camps due to low reading scores. Only 17,000 attended the camps, however.

More than 34,000 third-graders were “retained or reading retained,” Rhyne said. That means students were not promoted to fourth grade, placed in a fourth grade accelerated class or a hybrid classroom containing third-and fourth-graders.

In 2018-19, 24,000 third-graders were eligible for priority enrollment in the reading camps. Fewer than half — 11,000 — attended the camps. Overall, 20,000 third-grade were “retained or reading retained” that school year.

“If we don’t make literacy our No. 1 priority, outside of safety, our children will have it far more difficult than we do, not only for a couple of years, but for a lifetime,” Rhyne said.

State Superintendent Catherine noted that third grade is a pivotal year for young readers.

“We can’t continue to have 24,000 students graduating from third grade not able to read,” Truitt said. “Third-grade reading is the No. 1 predictor of secondary success, and this cannot continue.”

Truitt trumpeted the science of reading, a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read, as the best way to improve reading scores.

“The shift from whole language and balanced literacy to the science of reading where a phonics-based approached to literacy instruction was coming down the pike pre-pandemic, thank God,” Truitt said.

A new law intended to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

The “Read to Achieve” law was championed by Senate Leader Phil Berger in 2012 with a goal of ensuring all students read on grade level by the end of third grade. By most accounts, the initiative has been a failure. After spending more than $150 million on it, reading scores have not improved.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading  comprehension, some experts agree.

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Raleigh News & Observer’s Editorial Board earlier this year.

Kisha Clemons, the NC Teach of the Year Advisor, told the board that she is concerned about the impact the pandemic has had on students who have been typically marginalized.

“It’s more than just the literacy instruction and quality, which is important, but even with that we have to think about how we’re going to be culturally responsive to our students so we don’t see the disproportionality in our students,” said Clemons.

The report on the “Read to Achieve” initiative comes nearly a month after test results showed that only 45.4% of K-12 students passed state reading, math and science exams taken during the 2020-21 school year when most students learned remotely.

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