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EDITORIAL: Reversing pandemic-related reading losses

EDITORIAL: Reversing pandemic-related reading losses

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THE ABILITY to read fluently and comprehend what you read is, hands down, the most important academic skill a child needs to master to be successful in school and later in adult life. There is no substitute for a lack of this foundational skill.

Literacy experts recommend that children in grades K–2 receive at least 20 or 30 minutes of phonics instruction daily because research has shown that the ability to decode (sound out words) is what separates good readers from struggling ones. Research also shows that 88 percent of students who wound up dropping out of high school were still struggling to read in third grade.

Yet too many third-graders in the Fredericksburg region are not proficient in reading, according to results of the 2018–19 Third Grade Standards of Learning Reading tests released by the Virginia Department of Education. The tests, which were administered before the SOLs were suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tell the grim story:

  • King George County: 72 percent pass rate; 16 percent advanced pass rate; 12 percent fail rate.
  • Stafford County: 70 percent pass rate; 16 percent advanced pass rate; 14 percent fail rate.
  • Caroline County: 68 percent pass rate; 17 percent advanced pass rate; 15 percent fail rate.
  • Spotsylvania County: 68 percent pass rate; 13 percent advanced pass rate; 19 percent fail rate.
  • Culpeper County: 64 percent pass rate; 12 percent advanced pass rate; 24 percent fail rate.
  • The City of Fredericksburg: 50 percent pass rate; 10 percent advanced pass rate; 40 percent fail rate.

It is highly unlikely that during the recent school closures, with all of the education disruptions they caused, that young children’s ability to read improved. In fact, a new study of 250,000 reading tests from 100 school districts in 22 states last spring and fall by researchers at Stanford University found a 30 percent decrease in oral reading fluency scores for students in first through third grades.

“This new research provides clear and concerning evidence of learning loss in terms of the development of essential reading skills among young students,” said Heather Hough, one of the study’s main authors. “The losses may be greater than we estimate, particularly for students in lower-achieving schools, raising gravely concerning issues of educational equity.”

Alarm bells should be ringing in local school divisions where the third- grade reading scores were already too low before the pandemic.

Any other education issue should take a back seat to the third-grade literacy issue, which was a major problem before the pandemic and is now likely to be an even bigger problem now, especially for low-income, minority and special ed students. Through no fault of their own, they have lost valuable reading instruction time during a key developmental phase.

Knowing what we know about the future prospects of students who are not reading proficiently by third grade, it’s clear that some sort of major remediation program will be necessary to get these struggling readers back on track and reading at grade level before they fall hopelessly behind their peers.

Perhaps educators need to increase phonics instruction time in grades K–2, change reading programs, or alter the curriculum to allow more time for teachers to focus on literacy. Or insist that parents read with their child every day. Whatever it takes.

Due to cognitive or other disabilities, a small percentage of students will not be able to achieve basic reading proficiency by third grade, but 12 to 40 percent of students in the Fredericksburg region? Not acceptable.

Before discussing any other education issues—be it school funding, new school construction or teacher pay—local superintendents and school board members need to tell the public exactly what they’re going to do about their third-grade reading scores before another cohort of children gets left behind.

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