Saturday, October 9, 2021

When Fourth-Graders Can’t Read: One Phoenix School Has a New Way to Fight Pandemic Learning Loss

At WSJ, "Students return to school two grade levels behind; adding literacy lessons to PE":

PHOENIX—On a recent morning, 10 fourth-graders huddled in a circle on the floor over magnetic boards, moving lettered tiles to spell out the one-syllable words their teacher, Katerah Layne, called out.

“Rub” said Ms. Layne. As the students shuffled their tiles, a couple confused the letters “b” and “d.”

“It’s OK to get confused,” Ms. Layne reassured the students.

Next, she called out the word “fish.” All of the students spelled it correctly. “We all got the ‘i’ sound. I’m so proud of you,” said Ms. Layne.

Each fall, about five students show up to Ms. Layne’s class at Sevilla Elementary School East in Phoenix lagging far behind fourth grade-level reading skills. This year, she was stunned to find nearly half of her 25 students tested at kindergarten to first-grade reading levels.

When the pandemic disrupted schools in spring 2020, educators predicted remote learning would set up many children for failure, especially students of color and those from poor families. Test scores from the first months of remote learning showed students falling months behind in reading and math. This fall, as many students returned to classrooms for the first time after 18 months of disruptions, some teachers have found the learning loss is worse than projected.

The situation is dire in classrooms like Ms. Layne’s, located in the Alhambra Elementary School District where many parents work hourly jobs in construction, cleaning and fast-food restaurants. The district has faced a growing literacy problem over the past 15 years. But the pandemic has turned it into a crisis: A test administered this month to gauge how many students met state grade-level standards revealed that of the 422 second- through fourth-graders at Sevilla East, 58% were determined to be minimally proficient in their grade-level standards for English Language Arts—the lowest rank.

During the 2020-21 school year, the rate at which students learned nationwide was slower across all student groups, regardless of race, ethnicity or income level, compared with historical averages before the pandemic, according to a July report by NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit education-services firm. Math achievement was as much as 12 percentile points lower in the spring of 2021 compared with a typical year. Reading achievement declined by as much as 6 percentile points compared with before the pandemic, among all students. The results come from about 5.5 million third- through eighth-grade students in 12,500 public schools who took the assessments in 2018-2019 and in the 2020-2021 school year. But the drop in reading scores among Black and Latino fourth-grade students was, on average, double that of white and Asian-American students. At the same time, among fourth-graders—a critical juncture in education—students from high-poverty schools experienced three times as much learning loss in reading compared with those enrolled in low-poverty schools.

At Sevilla East, a majority of students come from poor households without a strong English-language background, which limited their natural exposure to the kind of oral language development and vocabulary that schools provide and children from wealthier and higher-educated families still had access to at home during the pandemic, said Cecilia Maes, the district superintendent.

Despite years of battling low reading scores, the educators at Sevilla East were surprised at what they saw when classrooms reopened for in-person learning this fall.

Many fourth-graders returned to school reading on the same level as they had in the second grade when the pandemic started—leaving them more than two grade levels behind now. A few have regressed, tests show. The school’s recent diagnostic test results showed there were more fourth-graders behind grade-level reading expectations than students in any other grade.

To address the pandemic-related learning loss, Erika Twohy, Sevilla East’s new principal, used federal stimulus funds to hire an academic recovery teacher for the fourth-graders and another staffer to focus on reading intervention targeting fourth- and second-graders. She is also requiring all classroom teachers and 14 instructional assistants get trained in the Wilson Reading System, a program that has a heavy emphasis on phonics.

All classes now include a literacy component, including physical education and music. The gym teacher has started injecting oral language development into class by breaking down the meaning of words like “defense.” This approach is meant to maximize every moment of in-person learning and immerse students in literacy to make up for the lost time, Ms. Twohy said.

Dr. Maes, the superintendent, said the district is focused on targeted training so that teachers like Ms. Layne will know how to teach first-grade level reading skills to remediate fourth-graders.

But districtwide staffing shortages make it difficult to fully address the problem. There are currently more than 100 vacancies and it is extremely difficult to find substitutes. When scores of Sevilla East teachers had to take a day off to get trained in the new reading program, the district had to send academic coaches, executive directors and data specialists to supervise classrooms...