The literacy skills of Utah first graders have dropped statewide

The gap with last year’s kids is the size of the chronic disparities usually seen among disadvantaged students.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

In a normal fall, the majority of Utah’s incoming first graders enter school on track and ready to read. Not this year.

The state has found a 14% drop in the number of first graders who have the expected level of early literacy skills, following the spring closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the shift to online learning beginning in March, students across Utah missed 45 days of in-person instruction.

“We’ve never seen this as a whole [state] before,” said Sara Wiebke, preK-12 literacy and library media coordinator for the Utah Board of Education. “This is new territory for us.”

The overall drop is more like the chronic achievement gaps seen in the literacy skills of first, second and third graders when racial and ethnic minority students are compared to white students, or chronically absent kids are compared to frequent attenders, or economically disadvantaged classmates are compared to those who aren’t living in poverty.

Those gaps were 12% to 14% in the end-of-year tests taken by first through third graders in spring 2019. That data, comparing students by demographics, won’t be available from this fall until the end of the school year.

In early literacy proficiency tests, the state’s incoming second and third graders also saw declines. But the drop in first grade was the most pronounced, from 60% at or above benchmark last fall, to 46% this year.

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The data will likely change once it’s been finalized at the end of the school year (to remove chronically absent students, for example). But the gap is expected to remain large.

The Utah Board of Education voted to prioritize funding requests to the 2021 Legislature for school districts to help pre-K through third grade students and their teachers.

“These learning gaps are likely to continue to impact students and teachers for years to come if we don’t take immediate action,” said an email recently sent to district superintendents, charter school directors and curriculum directors by the state board.

“If our early learners do not become proficient readers by the end of third grade there are long-term consequences they will likely face,” it said. “Not only will additional human and fiscal resources be needed for many years, but also this puts them at greater risk for being incarcerated, needing public assistance, and living in poverty.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Self-portraits of students wearing masks hang on a wall at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

‘They lost that momentum’

Utah requires all first through third graders to take the Acadience Reading (formerly called Dibels) three times a year. The test takes less than 10 minutes and aims to detect students at risk for early reading problems.

In first grade, it measures skills like letter-naming fluency, phonics (recognizing what sounds letters make) and phonemic awareness (the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words). For example, students are asked to identify the individual sounds of a word like “pat” and then change the “p” to “c.”

Those skills are crucial for later reading success, said Liz Williams, Elementary English Language Arts Assessment Specialist at the state office.

School districts anticipated the dip and have added new interventions during the school day, saying catching students up is crucial.

“We’re taking it very seriously and doing everything we can to close that gap,” said Michelle Lovell, a K-3 literacy consultant in the Jordan School District.

Despite not having end-of-year tests last spring because of the shift to online learning, the district anticipated a COVID-19 slide and adopted a more rigorous curriculum to be used for all students in K-2. It purchased a new reading intervention program, and online students are coming into school in small groups on Fridays (a distance-learning day for all Jordan students) to get targeted instruction.

While the goal is to bring kids up to grade level this year, that may not be realistic with students bouncing in and out of class because of illness or quarantine. And students learning online aren’t making as much progress as those in class, said Missy Hamilton, director of teaching and learning for elementary schools in the Murray School District.

But it’s difficult for all students to catch up because teachers are having to teach kindergarten and first grade concepts in a shorter amount of time. Murray has shortened its school days to allow teachers to prepare for online lessons. Other districts offer in-person classes four days a week and shorter lessons online on Fridays.

“We’re having to do twice the amount of work in half the amount of time,” Hamilton said.

“COVID hit right at the time when our kindergarteners [normally] just take off,” she added. “They’re putting sounds together to words and those words are becoming sentences. It’s a beautiful experience to watch kindergarteners learn how to read. They lost that momentum in the spring.”

‘A coronavirus generation’

Teachers have had to pare back lessons to teach the absolute essentials, Hamilton said. She hopes the Legislature will provide funds to allow all districts to offer classes before or after school, or summer school.

“I personally am very worried that we will have a coronavirus generation,” said Susan Henrie, a K-5 English language arts team leader for the Canyons School District. “These little first graders one day will be our senators, they will be our teachers, they will be our doctors … lawyers. Reading is the gateway to all content.”

Canyons’ first graders did better than the state average, with 57% meeting the benchmark, but that number is still lower than in years past, Henrie said.

She believes phonemic awareness skills weren’t cemented with the youngest students when the state shut down schools in mid-March. And while school was available online, kindergarteners accessed distance learning the least.

Teachers also don’t have the luxury of pausing what needs to be taught this year to reteach last year’s concepts. “We don’t want to go backwards. We would have that gap going through 12th grade,” Henrie said.

Starting last May, she met with principals to plan interventions, purchased a reading intervention for all students (called Enhanced Core Reading Intervention), trained teachers and literacy specialists, and flagged for teachers the skills that may need to be reinforced because they were supposed to be taught last spring.

‘Huge leaps and bounds’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marci Weatherspoon works on a reading assignment with Lucas Gonzalez in her first grade class at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

Using the tools, Canyons’ Crescent Elementary, in Sandy, has found success with its students. Different literacy test data provided by the school shows just 10 first graders are below grade level in literacy, compared to 27 at the beginning of the year.

And schoolwide, 100 students have moved from below grade level to proficient or above proficient.

“They’ve really made huge leaps and bounds already,” said first grade teacher Marci Weatherspoon. “Just being in the classroom and getting the material has been working.”

The teachers at Crescent are recording lessons that online students, as well as in-person students, can watch. Then the students do work at their own pace.

During that time, the students who need help can work with the teachers one on one. Giving individualized instruction wasn’t the goal of the recorded lessons — the goal was to be able to train students in class how to access online material in case they were quarantined or in-person instruction was shut down.

But individual instruction is a happy benefit. Students, said principal Cami Montague, “are getting exactly what they need.”

— Heather May is a freelance writer and can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com. If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.