What will it take for left-behind students to learn to read?

Roxanne Grago’s fifth-grade students at Lake Marie Elementary should be able to read a short story, analyze it, and support their analyzes with examples from the text.

But Grago said that during school closures and other pandemic-era disruptions, students fell behind academically. Today, they struggle to interpret the meaning of a story because they didn’t master the basics of reading. Many didn’t receive adequate instruction in phonics, the practice of sounding out words, when they were in full-time remote learning in third grade.

“That’s another reason why my students aren’t progressing,” Grago said. “You don’t teach phonics in fourth and fifth grade.”

Across California, teachers like Grago are struggling to get their students back on track after they missed large chunks of reading instruction in third grade — a pivotal year for literacy, when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Reading at grade level by third grade ensures they can understand their science and history textbooks in later grades.

The stakes are high for getting students caught up. Studies show that students who can’t read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school as well as earn smaller salaries and have lower standards of living as adults.

“When students missed the most crucial year for learning to read, the system was never set up to help support them,” said Shervaughnna Anderson-Byrd, the director of UCLA’s California Reading & Literature Project. “They came back to a system that assumed they had received instruction.”

State standardized test data released in recent months show Grago isn’t the only teacher trying to help students recover fundamental reading skills. California’s Smarter Balanced tests are given to almost all students in grades three through eight and grade eleven every year. They measure whether students have mastered state standards for math and English language arts. Students take the assessments every spring with scores released the following school year, usually in the fall.

The test was canceled in spring 2020 and was optional in 2021. The spring 2022 test results provided the first comprehensive look at how many students fell behind since the start of the pandemic.

Both math and English language arts scores dropped, but no other subject controls how well students learn other subjects than foundational reading. Among all grade levels, state data show third-graders saw the steepest declines in English language arts: Comparing 2019 to 2022, the share of third-graders meeting or exceeding standards dropped from 49% to 42%.

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