The education-world and the nation have been ablaze about the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results in reading and math for 4th graders. The results show a decrease in both reading and math. This is the largest decrease in reading scores since 1990 and the first ever decline in math scores since the assessment was first administered in 1969. While the latest NAEP data is only available for 4th graders, it is reasonable to assume that students across all grades have experienced learning loss, at least, to some extent.
So, what can we do about the decline in reading and math scores? How long will it take to remediate them? And what can we do to accelerate remediation? Since an improvement in reading skills has been shown to lead to an improvement in mathematics (Glenberg et al. 2012), let’s focus on remediating reading first.
Here’s what we know. Reading scores for 9-year-olds dropped by an average of 5 points; however, lower-performing students experienced even bigger declines. For instance, students at the 10th percentile dropped by 10 points, while students at the 90th percentile dropped by only 2 points. In determining what this means, Mervosh (2022) suggests that 1 point of decline is equivalent to 3 weeks of learning. This means that higher performing students are 6 weeks behind, while lower performing students fell 30 weeks behind! Therefore, according to the NAEP reading results, students require weeks or months of additional instructional time to make up for the decline in scores. Providing 6 to 30 weeks of additional instruction to catch students up is challenging if not unrealistic. You can dig into more of the NAEP results here.
Let’s contextualize this. The now 4th graders were 7 or 8 years old and in the 2nd grade when schools were shut down and instruction was interrupted or, at the very least, hosted online. We are seeing the effects of 2nd graders being taught how to read via Zoom. Teaching reading is hard enough, yet when we add in the distance learning component, it becomes even harder to teach 20-30 students how to read.
Over the past 2 years, 4th graders may have missed instruction in 2nd and 3rd grades. According to the CCSS, 2nd and 3rd graders are expected to build word recognition, decoding, and fluency skills. Specifically, they are expected to:
These skills are critical to building long-term reading success. Without established word recognition and fluency skills, a reader struggles to make sense of the words on the page as all of their brain power is exhausted on sounding out, or decoding, each word (Berninger & Richards, 2002; Cutting et al., 2009).
Being a fluent reader aids in comprehension as the language comes off the page at a rate that is understandable. For instance, think of a YouTube video that keeps buffering compared to one that plays smoothly, it is much easier to comprehend what is happening when the video plays at an appropriate rate, just like fluent reading. While we do not know whether or not students were taught these foundational skills, we can hypothesize that reading struggles are partly attributable to interrupted schooling.
Can we accelerate remediation? Intervention research tells us that the best thing we can do is determine what is causing reading difficulties and then create supplemental intervention plans that help make up for lost time (e.g., Haager et al., 2007). To speed up remediation, it is critical to create intentional reading lessons that target the specific skills students need to become proficient readers. This should encompass creating instructional groups that include students with similar needs, as well as one-on-one interventions for learners significantly behind grade-level expectations.
One issue is that 4th or 5th graders are no longer supposed to be learning to read, but rather are expected to be reading to learn in content areas (Chall, 1983). In my work with teachers, I often hear upper elementary, middle, and high school teachers say they do not know where to start when a student struggles to read successfully. Now, with the newest NAEP results, it is clear that teachers of all grade levels will have to know where to start and how to provide meaningful interventions that lead to skilled reading.
Where do I start? Before deciding on an intervention strategy and going shopping for interventions, the best place to start is to diagnose reading problems. You will need a diagnostic reading assessment that can identify the gaps in learners’ reading skills well beyond phonics. You will need an assessment that can dig deep into every foundational skill and accurately measure student proficiency. Only when you know exactly which skills your students are struggling with, will you be able to create an effective intervention plan.
Although there are several popular assessments that could support teachers in identifying gaps, most of them were designed for benchmarking to be administered 2-3 times a year; most of these optimize assessment time and are NOT sufficiently deep or reliable to be diagnostic. It is imperative to have a valid and reliable diagnostic assessment with a sufficient breadth and depth of assessment. This is important because you need accurate data to better meet your students’ needs by creating and providing targeted reading interventions.
In an earlier article, we reviewed what to look for in a high-quality diagnostic reading assessment. It now seems timely to share that article as our nation works to uncover our students’ reading difficulties and get to work supporting them in becoming skilled readers.
Enjoyed this article? Sign up to receive our insights on reading assessments and intervention.
NOTE: The ETS ReadBasix assessment is a diagnostic reading assessment that provides separate 30-item subtests for each of 5 foundational reading skills.