Beginning-of-the-year assessments show K-3 students literacy skills on the rebound from pandemic

By: - January 9, 2023 10:00 am
Source: NCDPI

(The headline has been updated to reflect that the literacy assessments took place at the beginning of the school year.) 

North Carolina’s K-3 students are rebounding from a pandemic-fueled slide in literacy skills, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the State Board of Education last week.

The superintendent made her remarks during the state board’s recent monthly meeting. She cited data from an assessment administered at the beginning of the school year.

Of the 454,000 students assessed, nearly 28,000 more performed at or above the benchmark when compared to the previous school year, Truitt said.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

“We feel like in looking at all of our K-3 reading diagnostic data that we are finally confident to say that we feel like there is a post-pandemic rebound happening in early literacy in our state,” Truitt said.

Recent state testing data show that student learning suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic. National Assessment of Educational Progress scores also showed historic declines in reading and math.

The state’s elementary school students’ literacy skills are tested at the beginning, middle and end of the school year as part of the state’s Read to Achieve program designed to ensure all students read on or above grade level by end of third grade.

The diagnostic data show that the percentage of K-3 students who are on track, meaning they read well enough to receive instruction in core subjects, is higher in each grade level. The growth was most evident in first grade where 48% of students were on track in reading compared to 38% a year ago.

The data also show that fewer students need intensive intervention due to poor scores.  Last year 44% of first graders, for example, needed intensive intervention in reading at the beginning of the school year. The percentage of students needing such help fell to 32% at the start of this school year.

And disaggregated data show that white, Black and Hispanic students all began the year as more proficient readers compared to last year’s K-3 students.

Truitt credited teachers and the state’s shift to instruction based on the science of reading, which is a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read. Thousands of elementary school teachers have undergone Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training to try to help students become better readers.

“Teachers across the state are working hard to help students become proficient readers by grounding their instruction in the science of reading,” Truitt said. “They deserve to be commended for taking on this often very difficult and demanding work of learning themselves how to teach differently.”

Truitt also noted that 5,000 fewer fourth graders started the school year with the label reading retained than started last school year with the label.

She boasted that North Carolina’s year-to-year gains were greater than those in other districts taking the same assessment. According to an NCDPI press release, North Carolina’s results were compared with those of 1.6 million K-3 students elsewhere in the nation whose literacy skills are measured with the same assessment provided by Amplify, the education company that provides the mCLASS assessment under contract with the state Department of Public Instruction.

Amy Rhyne, who leads the state’s early literacy program as director of the Office of Early Learning at the Department of Public Instruction, said she believes the latest assessment results reflect a significant effort by teachers statewide to improve literacy skills for all students.

“We are extremely proud of the shifts teachers are already making as they intentionally align instruction to what they are learning about the science of reading,” Rhyne said. “Early data also indicate better results in schools where teachers are progress monitoring with fidelity, between benchmarks. Responding to data in a timely manner allows for ongoing, aligned instructional supports.”

In other news, the NC Department of Public Instruction announced that it was awarded a $17 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help meet the mental help needs of students in public schools.

The money will be used to partner with colleges and universities and 15 school districts to increase the number and diversity of mental health service providers in high-needs schools.

The funding comes in two competitive grants: the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration (MHSP) Grant and the School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) Grant Program.

The applications cited data from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which found that one in five North Carolina high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide.

The first grant, “Project Adding Direct Support (ADS),” NCDPI’s Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant will serve over 120,000 students in eight school districts: Pitt, Pender, Wayne, Harnett, Scotland, Alamance-Burlington, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Catawba. Project ADS will increase the number of licensed school-based mental health providers by a minimum of 60 within five years.

The other grant, “Project FAST,” NCDPI’s School-Based Mental Health Grant, will serve approximately 73,000 students in six school districts: Cabarrus, Davidson, Guilford, Randolph, Scotland and Stanly. Project FAST will increase the number of school-based mental health providers to 30 over the project’s five-year period.

“Providing school-based mental health candidates with tuition assistance, high-quality professional development, sign-on incentives, and supplement increases will go a long way in helping to meet staffing challenges in school districts,” Pachovia Lovett, NCDPI’s school social work consultant who sought the two grants, said in a news release. “We are excited to begin this work and eager to see the impact in retaining and re-specializing counselors and social workers into school-based mental health providers.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.