A presentation to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee on Nov. 29 revealed marginal improvements in reading proficiency for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, although learning loss from pandemic school closures is having an impact, particularly for minority students.

The improvements are attributable to a new emphasis on reading comprehension instruction based on phonetics. 

In 2021, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed the Excellent Public Schools Act, which created a statewide roadmap for switching literacy instruction from a “look and say” method to the phonetic method. The focus was on increasing reading efficiency for K-3 students. The law took effect July 1.

During the committee meeting this week, lawmakers saw data showing improvement particularly for kindergarten students during last school year. Kindergartners went from 30% proficient in reading at the beginning of the year to 63% by year’s end.

While still present, the improvements were less dramatic for black and Hispanic students compared to white and Asian students.

The improvement margin narrowed for 1st and 2nd graders — from 42% to 63% for the former and from 47% to 59% for the latter. The narrowest improvement gap was for 3rd graders, who went from 53% to 57%.

“Overall, [students] lost some foundation skills, so you’ve seen some great growth but you’ve also seen gaps because those kiddos missed kindergarten and first grade, or they were in a school possibly with masks,” said Amy Rhyne, director of the Office of Early Learning in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Another positive metric came in how North Carolina compares to other states for K-2 reading proficiency.

“We are, in North Carolina, making faster progress than other states in comparison. So, because we are focusing on those sub-skills, we’re starting to see in those early foundational grades that we’ve made gains and comeback quicker than other states,” Rhyne said.

The data are based off the Amplify DIBELS 8 Formative Reading Diagnostic Assessment.