Three years after pandemic-related learning loss, students in Georgia are still struggling to catch up on their reading skills

Three school years after classrooms closed in March 2020 following the initial COVID-19 outbreak, Georgia students are lagging behind in phonics compared to children in other states, said Woody Paik, executive vice president at education firm Curriculum Associates the data shows some good news.

“When I look at all grade levels for spring 2023, Georgia is a little behind each grade level compared to the national average,” he said, pointing to data from children in kindergarten through 8th grade.

Curriculum Associates sells lessons, assessments and teaching tools, including the popular i-Ready software used by more than 11 million students nationwide. Paik spoke at the Georgia Board of Education retreat in Young Harris, Georgia, last week.

Across the country, Curriculum Associates data shows academic recovery is sluggish in both reading and math. The data shows that while elementary students in majority-black schools saw the largest gains in reading and math scores between 2022 and 2023, majority-black and Latino schools lagged significantly behind majority-white schools.

Similarly, the share of students at grade level fell nationally at all levels of median income after the pandemic, but the effect was more pronounced in districts with lower median incomes.

“When I look at the schools with median incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 or $75 and above, the historical difference was 8%, meaning the wealthier neighborhoods had about 8% more children at grade level,” said Paik. “The historic 8% difference is now 12%, so the existing inequalities have only just been wired in.”

And seemingly paradoxically, students who were not in kindergarten when the pandemic began still have poorer reading skills than students in pre-pandemic grades, according to data from Curriculum Associates.

For example, in 2019, 68% of first graders were reading at grade level, by 2022 that number dropped to 58% and rose to 61% in the spring of 2023.

“These are children whose lives have been disrupted by family situations, maybe daycare was closed, maybe preschool was closed, whatever it may be,” Paik said. “But the point is that these children continue to enter the buildings further back than before and they have not been directly affected by the school closure but rather indirectly, so it is a difficult situation.”

Still, Paik said there is reason for optimism in Georgia because the numbers suggest some Georgia students are catching up faster than children in other states.

“In the first grade, the national score increased from 59 to 65, an increase of six points. Georgia went up 53 to 62. They went up nine points,” he said. “If you look at the third grade, the national score went from 69 to 72, which is three points, Georgia went from 61 to 67, which is six points. “So I don’t know exactly what’s in the water here.”

State education leaders have already announced plans to further close learning gaps, including new tutoring resources through AmeriCorps and Georgia Virtual Learning and the formation of a 30-member Georgia Council on Literacy.

The board also plans to implement assessment changes consistent with this year’s Georgia Early Literacy Act, which would require schools to adopt tests to screen K-3 students with reading problems and plans to get them back on track . The tests would take place three times a year, with the first taking place within 30 days of the start of the school year, and the tests would also be designed to identify characteristics of dyslexia.

At its September meeting, the state Board of Education made a rule change that included the new auditors, but did not vote on the measure after board member Helen Odom Rice said she had questions about the changes. Rice said the proposed rule, as written, may not be consistent with the bill’s requirements for disclosing screening results to parents and the board.

“There’s a lot and it’s crucial that we get this right, especially with screening and testing and especially with voting, that’s enshrined in law. And I don’t know if everyone has had a chance to actually read it and go through it.”

The next board meeting is scheduled for November 1st and 2nd. Under the Early Literacy Act timeline, they have until January 1 to establish procedures for education providers to submit screeners for consideration and July 1, 2024 to approve a list of screeners. Schools will begin implementing screening and intervention plans next August.