A Lake Marie Elementary School student does classwork in Whittier (Los Angeles County). To help students recover reading skills after they fell behind during the pandemic shutdown, the South Whittier School District has redeployed reading specialists who work with students in small groups.
Roxanne Grago’s fifth-grade students at Lake Marie Elementary should be able to read a short story, analyze it, and support their analyses with examples from the text.
But Grago said that during school closures and other pandemic-era disruptions, students fell behind academically. Today, they struggle to interpret the meaning of a story because they didn’t master the basics of reading. Many didn’t receive adequate instruction in phonics, the practice of sounding out words, when they were in full-time remote learning in third grade.
“That’s another reason why my students aren’t progressing,” Grago said. “You don’t teach phonics in fourth and fifth grade.”
Across California, teachers like Grago are struggling to get their students back on track after they missed large chunks of reading instruction in third grade — a pivotal year for literacy, when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Reading at grade level by third grade ensures they can understand their science and history textbooks in later grades.
The stakes are high for getting students caught up. Studies show that students who can’t read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school as well as earn smaller salaries and have lower standards of living as adults.
“When students missed the most crucial year for learning to read, the system was never set up to help support them,” said Shervaughnna Anderson-Byrd, the director of UCLA’s California Reading & Literature Project. “They came back to a system that assumed they had received instruction.”
State standardized test data released in recent months show Grago isn’t the only teacher trying to help students recover fundamental reading skills. California’s Smarter Balanced tests are given to almost all students in grades three through eight and grade eleven every year. They measure whether students have mastered state standards for math and English language arts. Students take the assessments every spring with scores released the following school year, usually in the fall.
The test was canceled in spring 2020 and was optional in 2021. The spring 2022 test results provided the first comprehensive look at how much students fell behind since the start of the pandemic.
Both math and English language arts scores dropped, but no other subject controls how well students learn other subjects than foundational reading. Among all grade levels, state data show third-graders saw the steepest declines in English language arts: Comparing 2019 to 2022, the share of third-graders meeting or exceeding standards dropped from 49% to 42%.
Among California school districts that tested more than 100 third-graders, South Whittier Elementary’s third-graders saw the biggest drop. In 2019, 36% of third-graders in the district met or exceeded English language arts standards. In 2022, that number plummeted by more than half, to under 18%.
Remote learning and pandemic disruptions had disparate impacts for English learners and low-income students, who are more likely to be Black and Latino. At South Whittier, about a third of students are English learners and nearly 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Closing the achievement gap for Black, Latino and low-income students has long been the goal of policymakers in California. Under the state’s education funding formula, public schools serving more low-income families, English learners and foster children get more money from the state. But students in those groups were more likely to fall behind during remote learning due to a lack of internet access, language barriers and mental health challenges.
In the early months of the pandemic, teachers taught lessons to faces on computer screens, but some students turned their cameras off. While some students managed to keep up, some had to work out of cars in Starbucks parking lots for a reliable Wi-Fi signal. And others just disappeared from this virtual version of school, forced to take care of siblings or work to help pay rent.
Statewide, the achievement gap between Latino students and white students on the Smarter Balanced tests grew slightly. Latino students in third grade saw a slightly steeper drop in test scores than third-graders overall. They went from 38% in 2019 to 31% of students meeting or exceeding standards in spring 2022. Black third-graders saw less of a decline, but they have the smallest percentage of students who met or exceeded English language arts standards, at 27% in spring 2022.
“This becomes about social justice and race,” Anderson-Byrd said. “Our Black and brown children are suffering the most with low reading scores. Especially our Black children.”
Two years ago, Grago’s students were in third grade and should have mastered phonics and started reading for comprehension. But that school year, Lake Marie Elementary School in the South Whittier School District had moved to full-time remote learning, a period of tumultuous and disrupted instruction for students statewide.
Grago had the same students last year when they were in fourth grade. She said her students have gotten closer to reading at grade level since last year, but about a quarter of them still struggle with phonics.
“We did very little phonics instruction last year, but I should’ve done more,” Grago said. “Now they definitely need it.”
Even though many students are far below grade level in reading ability, California’s education system requires teachers to meet specific instruction standards for each grade. Because the state assesses districts on these standards through the Smarter Balanced tests, teachers feel unable to spend more time teaching students the material they may have missed in past years.
“Our system is not designed for the individual child,” Anderson-Byrd said. “Our system is designed for the system.”
The South Whittier School District requires fifth-grade teachers to grade students on 54 standards across all subjects. In English language arts, students should be able to compare two characters from a story, synthesize information from multiple sources and identify the main ideas of a written work. Grago said these requirements leave little time for catch-up.
“I’ve been looking at what they have to learn in fifth grade, and it’s harder to fit in phonics,” Grago said. “It just keeps snowballing.”
Educators and experts have widely referred to this missed instruction as “learning loss.” Teachers tasked with helping students catch up while meeting mandated standards feel students will never recover what they lost, especially in literacy.
Emily Thompson, who teaches sixth grade at Lake Marie, said the typical student in her class reads at a fourth-grade level. Up until last month, the average reading level for her class was third grade. She said she’s “genuinely afraid” of her students’ inability to read at grade level before they move onto middle school.
“I feel bad handing the middle school teachers these students,” she said. “Because I don’t know how they’re going to make up the losses that I couldn’t make up.”
Thus far, teachers say absences and positive COVID cases are down this school year compared to January’s omicron surge, but students still have a hard time focusing in class after a year of learning from home.
The current crisis in literacy presents an opportunity to rethink reading instruction, Anderson-Byrd said. Most aspiring elementary school teachers receive about 10 weeks or one semester of training in English Language Arts, which includes reading and writing, during their one-year credentialing programs. She said reading instruction deserves a year-long course with more emphasis on developmental psychology, which focuses on how young brains work.
Additionally, because California serves so many English learners, Anderson-Byrd said reading instruction courses should also focus on language acquisition. That means first training teachers on better assessing their students’ language abilities and identifying students who need extra help from language specialists.
“I hear a lot of teachers saying they just want to get back to normal, but for some kids that’s two years of instruction they missed,” Anderson-Byrd said. “There is no normal. It’s almost criminal to throw them back into the system and expect things to be normal.”
CalMatters reporter Erica Yee contributed to this story.
Joe Hong reports on the students, teachers and lawmakers who shape California’s public schools for CalMatters, where this story first appeared. Email: [email protected]