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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Third graders are way behind in reading and catching up very slowly

Third graders are way behind in reading, reports Hechinger's Jill Barshay. These students, who were in kindergarten when their schools closed in 2020, had the largest reading achievement gap compared to pre-pandemic students, according to NWEA's analysis of fall 2022 test scores for students in grades 3 through 8. Third graders improvement has been "minimal."

"While it’s good news that third graders are learning at a typical pace again and no longer falling further behind, they are also not gaining much extra ground," Barshay writes. "It’s unclear when, if ever, current third graders will even catch up to pre-pandemic norms in reading."

It’s worth noting that pre-pandemic reading levels weren’t spectacular and had been deteriorating; most children were not proficient in reading for their grade level, as measured by a national yardstick. So, it’s an estimated “long road” to return to a rather low level of achievement that was already a subject of consternation and hand-wringing.

If students don't learn foundational reading skills in the early grades, teachers in higher grades may not be prepared to fill in the gaps, writes Barshay.

Catlin Goodrow, a reading specialist at a Spokane charter school, is teaching first-grade phonics to a small group of third graders. Some missed two full years of school, she told Barshay. Other third graders learned some of the foundational skills but never got the silent "e" or how to deal with "ough."

"Because third grade is so critical, 16 states plus the District of Columbia require children to repeat the year if they cannot read at a basic level," writes Barshay. If those rules are enforced, many children will have to repeat third grade. But few states will want to hold back that many students.

In Michigan, only a "tiny fraction" of students flagged for retention actually repeated third grade, reports Chalkbeat.

Creating a "third-grade reading gate" is controversial, writes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week. "Studies generally show short-term academic gains that fade out over time," she reports, but studies in 2017 and 2019 have found long-term benefits for Florida students. That may be because Florida also required "at least 90 minutes of daily, targeted reading instruction from high-performing teachers.

Eighth-graders also are in trouble, reports NWEA. They "have experienced minimal improvements in math and reading, and the estimated timeline to full recovery (5+ years) for these students still falls past the end of high school."

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