The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Literacy scores show widening achievement gap in D.C. during pandemic

The learning losses sustained during the more than one year of virtual learning were far greater than a typical summer learning loss. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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The literacy proficiency gap between young White students and students of color in the District continued to widen during the second year of the pandemic, according to data released recently by D.C. Public Schools.

The data shows that at the beginning of the current academic year, White students were hitting early literacy benchmarks at rates similar to their performance levels before the coronavirus pandemic. But Black and Hispanic students were still far behind where they were in the fall of 2019, months before school buildings shut down and students were sent home for virtual learning.

Twenty-eight percent of Black students and 30 percent of Hispanic students were considered proficient on a test administered in fall 2021, according to the data. Seventy percent of White students hit these benchmarks. In fall 2019, 44 percent of Black students and 42 percent of Hispanic students hit these benchmarks, compared with 73 percent of White students.

In the beginning of the 2020 school year — when all students were learning remotely — around 30 percent of Black and Hispanic students hit these benchmarks, compared with 66 percent of White students who did.

The data is based on virtual assessments administered to students in kindergarten through second grade by their teachers one-on-one this fall on an exam known as DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills).

The assessment is administered in short bursts and measures skills such as a child’s grasp of phonics, accuracy while reading and vocabulary.

“Our second-graders hadn’t been in regular school since kindergarten,” said Alison Williams, the deputy chief for content and curriculum at D.C. Public Schools. “We know for a fact that in-person instruction is critical, and the results of that are seen in some of the data.”

The results reflect a national drop in early literacy scores as students across the country attempted to learn to read virtually last academic year during prolonged school closures.

This entire second-grade D.C. class fell behind in reading. Now what?

During the virtual learning, students had disparate learning environments, with some having full-time parental help during the academic day and others having little supervision because their parents and guardians reported to in-person jobs. The learning losses were most acute among students of color and those from low-income families.

The literacy scores were published last month as part of a large data dump ahead of the D.C. Council’s oversight hearings. The council questioned the D.C. schools chancellor for more than two hours about topics including school nurses, teacher recruitment and out-of-school programming, though never asked about the literacy scores. The data did not include any results on math exams, where school leaders have said students also experienced setbacks.

Following national trends, D.C. school officials said the reading setbacks were most significant in the youngest grades, where students are still learning the basics of reading. Students who already knew how to read before the pandemic fared better on assessments that measured comprehension.

Anita S. McGinty, who until July 2021 served as the director of PALS, the early literacy assessment in Virginia, said D.C. is not unique in its declining literacy scores. A University of Virginia study examining PALS scores found that nearly 35 percent of kindergartners through second-graders failed to meet benchmarks in reading in fall 2021, compared with 21 percent in fall 2019.

McGinty, who also was an associate professor at the University of Virginia, said school districts should ensure that struggling readers receive ample individualized attention to help them catch up on reading. D.C. and districts across the country say they have used federal aid to hire more tutors and reading instructors, although hiring has been difficult because of staffing shortages.

“The data coming out is concerning, but they are also predictable when you look at the science,” McGinty said. “The science points to things that can be done to support early reading development. Supporting these early readers is critical to ensuring the problem doesn’t compound.”

Despite the gap in reading scores, overall, D.C. students have made significant progress in reading this academic year, Williams said. Forty-one percent of students hit their early literacy benchmarks at the beginning of the year. By the middle of the year, more than 50 percent hit those benchmarks, up roughly 10 percentage points. In the 2019-2020 academic year, the number of students hitting early literacy targets grew by 13 percentage points between the beginning and middle of year.

Students typically experience summer learning losses and make big gains during the first part of the academic year. But, the learning losses sustained during the period of virtual learning were far greater than a typical summer learning loss.

In D.C., achievement gap widens, early literacy progress declines during pandemic, data show

The school system sent the D.C. Council school-by-school breakdowns of reading scores across all grade levels. In the older grades, students are tested on their reading comprehension skills. At some grade levels, some schools had no students considered proficient in reading. At other schools, upward of 90 percent of students were considered proficient.

In older grades, schools serving largely low-income populations were more likely to make progress in reading comprehension than schools with young elementary grades, the data showed.

But overall the outcomes showed that more-affluent schools fared better on these exams.

Emily Hammett, the director of elementary English language arts for the D.C. school system, said that classroom teachers employ three tiers of instruction when teaching students to read. The first tier is the instruction that every student receives. Then the teacher identifies students who need additional help in small groups as part of second-tier instruction. Tier three targets students who need even more individualized instruction.

Hammett said that more students have been identified this academic year as needing tier-two or tier-three instruction. With federal pandemic funding, the school system has contracted with more outside tutors to help students, although Hammett said schools could use additional tutors.

“The meat and potatoes of the acceleration comes from classroom instruction,” Hammett said. “Students are also getting more targeted support.”

In October 2020, D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) pointed to steep declines in early literacy scores as they made their case to reopen school buildings.

“While it is typical (for us and other districts) to see students experience a ‘summer slide,’ it does not result in large scale dips such as what we see this year,” the school system wrote in a statement at the time.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.