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How badly did the pandemic deepen California’s early reading crisis?

Student Layleanah Booker, 9, reads from a book during a reading class at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento in June.
Randall Benton
Student Layleanah Booker, 9, reads from a book during a reading class at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento in June.

While California’s literacy crisis certainly predates the pandemic, with less than half of California children reading at grade level back in 2019, the fallout of the pandemic, the devastating impact of school closures and remote learning, has sent test scores plummeting further.

Only 42.1% of third-graders can read at grade level on the state’s latest Smarter Balanced test, down from 48.5% in 2019, a more than 6% percentage point decline. Disadvantaged third-graders fared even worse. The number who met the standard fell 7% percentage points from almost 37% in 2019 to 30% in 2022. Also troubling is the fact that the children who were in third grade in 2019 are now in sixth grade, and only 45.1% of them can read at grade level, suggesting that they’re not catching up.

“The Covid disaster led to the biggest drop in the amount of schooling available to our children,” said Tim Shanahan, a nationally renowned literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The number of lost and reduced days, the number of lost teacher days, makes this unprecedented.”

Since reading is a cornerstone skill that builds a foundation for all future learning, any drop in reading skills is detrimental. Amid the backdrop of the pre-existing literacy crisis, however, this plunge in third-grade reading skills has some experts sounding the alarms and calling for swift action from the state while others say it’s less of a five-alarm fire and more of an ongoing failure to teach reading effectively.

“It’s long past due that California leaders declare these results proof of a statewide emergency,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney in the groundbreaking 2017 lawsuit known as the Ella T. case that blamed the state of California for the deepening literacy crisis, “stop scapegoating children and teachers, and take responsibility for getting already marginalized students the academic and social and emotional supports they need to catch up now. Nothing less than their futures and the future of this state hang in the balance. It’s a matter of getting all of our children to tomorrow.”

The scores may be brutal, others suggest, but they’re far from shocking. Some experts view this uproar over falling test scores as a distraction from the sobering fact that the system was broken long before the pandemic, in terms of teaching kids to read.

Nothing new

“The scores change nothing. This isn’t new,” said Lakisha Young, founder of Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy group that has made great strides in teaching reading during the pandemic with parent and caregiver tutors in a virtual hub. “It was a catastrophe the day before the scores and it’s a catastrophe now. The pandemic has highlighted just how bad we’ve let our public education system get.”

For Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a former teacher who founded an online reading tutorial company, consistently lower test scores are a warning that the system needs an overhaul.

“Crummy scores pre-pandemic are indicative of a system that simply does not teach kids to read — a problem that persisted throughout the pandemic and still persists today,” said Sliwerski, a former teacher and CEO of Ignite Reading, a Zoom-based reading tutorial. “It is literally as simple as that. We do not as a nation hold our school systems accountable to ensuring that every single child is given equitable access to evidence-based instruction by a teacher who is highly trained and supported.”

Given the significance of third grade as a milestone, the year in which children must pivot from learning to read to reading to learn or quickly fall behind, all experts agree this may be a dire predictor. Children who can’t read well by third grade are also more likely to drop out of school, research suggests. That’s why the stakes are so high in a state where fewer and fewer children become proficient readers.

“The drop in reading proficiency is deeply troubling,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California Berkeley. “Strong reading and oral language skills are pivotal throughout elementary school and beyond. Verbal and engaged kids draw warm responses from teachers; reading enters children into a world of facts.”

Heartbreaking setbacks

Amid this unsettling context, many are pondering how likely it is that these children will be able to bounce back. Reckoning with the scope of the issue, what Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has characterized as “heartbreaking” academic setbacks, may be the key. A grave sense of urgency is required, experts say, lest these reading declines permanently steer children off course. Parents should press for schools and teachers to reject business as usual.

“This is a time for schools and families to step up and make sure that their children are receiving as much high-quality instruction focused on key learning areas as possible,” said Shanahan. “We can address this problem successfully, but it will need to be a priority in communities — it won’t just happen.”

Many suggest high-dosage tutoring as a remedy, but despite a wealth of Covid relief funding from federal and state governments, school district officials say they are struggling to find tutors amid a crippling teacher shortage even as they grapple with the hardships of pandemic life such as a spike in absences and student misbehavior.

In light of a national push to reform reading instruction, experts say that evidence-based practices steeped in how the brain learns to read, such as structured literacy with its methodical approach to phonics and other basics, should be a part of the academic recovery plan.

A school’s improved scores

Some districts are already reaping the benefits of this data-driven approach. At Joshua Elementary, a high-poverty school in the Lancaster school district, for example, a new structured literacy curriculum has paid off. The school’s third grade scores have improved from less than 3% of students meeting or exceeding standards to almost 11% doing so. Palo Alto Unified, an affluent Bay Area district, also saw gains after switching to a structured literacy approach. In 2022, 77% of third graders there meet or exceed standards, a 2.6-point increase from 2019.

“We absolutely believe the work we did with the science of reading made the difference,” said Lorraine Zapata, the principal at Joshua, one of 70 low-performing schools that received Early Literacy Support Block (ELSB) grantsas part of the 2020 Ella T. settlement.

Of all the block grant schools, Leonard R. Flynn Elementary in San Francisco saw the biggest boost, going from almost 11% of students meeting the standard to 34% doing so. Among the settlement schools, 32 improved while 36 declined. Even that split is considered notable given that the schools were selected for the extra funding because they had among the lowest reading scores in the state in 2019.

“It’s great news,” said Becky Sullivan, the literacy expert at the Sacramento County Office of Education who is overseeing the block grant program. “If the lowest schools in the state can show gains under the conditions we’ve had the last two years, it’s definitely a win.”

However, some experts say how children are taught makes a difference. Most California school districtsare not using curricula rooted in structured literacy, which includes phonics. Most districts are using balanced literacy to teach reading. This popular approach stresses the joy of reading while using controversial techniques such as memorizing “sight words” and looking at visual clues like pictures. It also lacks enough phonics and other fundamentals, experts say, to ensure that most kids read fluently.

By contrast, structured literacy, which stresses vocabulary and comprehension as well as phonics and phonemic awareness (identifying sounds), may better meet the needs of most students, experts say. Structured literacy builds on decades of exhaustive scientific research.

“We’ve seen significantly better results,” with one approach than the other, “so why not go there?” said Young, of the Oakland parent group, who has implemented a science of reading-based approach with impressive results. “You can have a great philosophical debate when it’s not your kid’s life on the line.”

Many also note that while all children are vulnerable to reading struggles, families of means can pay for the help they need. Cash-strapped families, hit hard by rising inflation, don’t have that option. But, as the state’s test scores show, reading scores dropped statewide among students from every racial/ethnic group and economic status. Taking English learners out of the mix, test scores dropped from 56.85% to 50.14%.

“It is bleak news on a large scale, especially for low-income children,” said Seena Hawley, who runs the Berkeley Baby Book Project, an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. “Parents with the resources to do so buy their children tutoring outside of school, and, voila, those children learn to read.”

Like a natural disaster

The key to reckoning with a crisis of this magnitude may be to treat it like a natural disaster, a hurricane or a fire, some say. Shanahan says that the losses can be mitigated as long as the response is as substantial as the disaster.

“In the past, such disasters have been localized and for shorter durations,” said Shanahan. “Experience from those kinds of interruptions to schooling tells us that we can regain all or a great deal of that lost ground by increasing the amount of teaching going forward and improving the quality and intensity of instruction. That will be tougher this time because of the scope of what has happened.”

The sixth graders, some fear, may be at the biggest disadvantage because not only do they lack reading skills, but they have also lost out on the knowledge they could have been acquiring for the last three years. Even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and teach them to read instantly, it wouldn’t make up for the loss in cognitive development they might have had.

“The sooner a child learns to read, the sooner they can build knowledge and vocabulary and thus have stronger comprehension,” said Sliwerski. “The longer it takes, the poorer they get in terms of vocabulary and comprehension. It’s not impossible to make up for lost ground, but it is really hard, and our system is not designed to help older kids close gaps.”

Given the depth and scope of the problem, experts say, California’s lack of a comprehensive literacy strategy that aligns with the research will impede any real progress.

State education officials must be held accountable, some say, because they may never have access to as much funding as they do today given the unprecedented amounts of state and federal aid going to districts to help children reclaim the learning they didn’t get during the pandemic.

A wake-up call

“There is a difference between throwing money at people and actually leading,” said Don Austin, superintendent of Palo Alto Unified. “If our state wishes to elevate early literacy, it should stand prominently as the undisputed top priority goal. Anything less than top billing is an indication that early literacy is simply another topic on a list.”

However, others warn that mandating structured literacy may not work, given the long and thorny history of debate about reading in this country. Unless feet get held to the fire in some way, they fear, children will continue to fall behind.

A statewide scorecard for early literacy that generates interest among students, teachers and families, Austin suggests, might help fuel awareness and achievement.

“A sense of competition,” he said, “could drive a focus to identify top performers and best practices to replicate.”

Certainly, for many parents, these grim test scores are a wake-up call that the time for the state to take charge is now. It’s not fair to put the burden of figuring out how best to teach reading on teachers and families.

“More students are struggling than before, and I think the state should take a strong role in promoting the highest-quality instructional methods for assessing students’ struggles and helping them catch up,” said Esti Iturralde, a Bay Area mother of two whose daughter struggled with reading until Iturralde began tutoring her at home. “It’s not right to expect each school district to independently research and implement the best instructional methods. They have a lot on their plates.”

EdSource is a California-based independent nonprofit organization founded in 1977, dedicated to providing analysis on key education issues facing the state and nation.