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COVID hampered efforts to improve 3rd-grade reading in Michigan

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Teachers told researchers they were encouraged by the literary support and training proposed for young readers, but found they had less time to work with students who needed help during the pandemic. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Michigan teachers spent less time giving reading lessons during the pandemic. During the same period, half of all third graders in the state were identified at some point by their teachers as needing extra help with reading.

Those findings — in a new report on Michigan’s third-grade reading law — underscore the academic toll of the pandemic, especially for students from low-income families and students of color, who were more likely to learn virtually last year. Michigan legislators passed the third-grade reading law in 2016 in an effort to reverse years of backsliding reading scores. The law increases the number of literacy coaches working with teachers to improve reading instruction for young students, while threatening to hold back third-graders with especially low reading scores.

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While earlier reports suggested that the early reading intervention was having a modest positive effect, the latest data suggests that there is a long road ahead.

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Students from low-income families, those who speak English as a second language, and students of color in particular, got less literacy instruction last year because their districts were more likely to be operating fully online, according to the report, by the Michigan State University Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC).

“It’s an equity issue,” said Katharine Strunk, a co-author. “If those students are receiving even less instruction time, the gaps are going to get bigger.”

Experts are calling on schools to use federal COVID funds to bolster students’ reading skills through tutoring, teacher training, and summer school programs. While many districts are already putting those programs in place, the pandemic continues to disrupt education across the state.

EPIC researchers drew on surveys and test score data to track student progress since the passage of the third-grade reading law. The controversial retention portion of the law, which requires schools to hold back third-graders with especially low English scores, was paused in 2019-20 due to the pandemic.

Key points of the 194-page report, include:

  • In a survey of nearly 7,000 Michigan teachers, most said they spent less time teaching reading during the pandemic last year compared with the year before. The same held true in other subjects. Teachers who taught virtually were especially likely to report spending less time teaching reading.
  • Half of 2020-21 third graders were listed as “reading deficient” by their school districts at some point in grades one through three. While it’s up to individual districts to define what this means, all students who receive this label are eligible for extra instruction and support in reading.
  • Teacher coaches reported that they spent less time helping teachers improve their literacy instruction during the pandemic.
  • While 5 percent of students scored low enough in 2020-21 to be held back for a year, districts intended to hold back just 0.3 percent of students.

Statewide, English test scores fell last year, but researchers did not include that data in the report, noting that less than three-quarters of students in the state had taken the M-STEP standardized test exam amid the pandemic.

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EPIC, which was contracted by the state to study the third-grade reading law, said it plans to release a separate report measuring students’ progress in literacy using benchmark tests taken this fall. Benchmark tests are given by individual districts to track students’ progress throughout the year.

Michigan still is not doing enough to support student literacy, said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for EdTrust Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“This report reinforces what we have long seen: Michigan is missing the mark in strategically improving early literacy, and there are disproportionate gaps in opportunity for the state’s most disadvantaged students,” she said in a statement.

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