A research brief from curriculum publisher Amplify shows that elementary school students continue to lag behind in literacy almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mid-school-year assessment concluded that students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are the furthest behind compared to their pre-pandemic counterparts. Black and Hispanic students are bearing the brunt of those learning losses, with the literacy gap between minority students and white students larger than before the pandemic.

The report noted that some progress is being made as students returned to in-classroom instruction across the country. That progress is particularly evident in grades three through five. But in a statement, Susan Lambert, chief academic officer of elementary humanities at Amplify, said the data in the report are a “clarion call” to help get students back on track in the earlier elementary grades.

“It’s really an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Lambert said. “Literacy instruction for the K-2 age group has always been critical. Now we’re seeing second-grade students who have spent their entire school lives in the pandemic losing the most instructional time at the most important moments for learning.”

“The struggles of students who have fallen behind are not going to go away on their own,” she added. “If we don’t address them, those struggles will compound. The older these students become, the longer it will take them to catch up.”

For the 2019-20 school year, 55% of kindergarten students were on track in literacy instruction, 58% in first grade, and 59% in second grade. For the 2021-22 school year, those numbers dipped to 47% for kindergarten, 48% for first grade, and 51% for second grade.

Even more trouble, around one-third of all elementary students are considered “far behind” in literacy for the 2021-22 school year and require intensive interventions.

“Last year, North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly called learning loss a ‘false construct.’ But dozens of high-quality studies, including the most recent Amplify analysis, refute her ludicrous claim,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

The pandemic-induced literacy gap has caught the attention of lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly. In spring 2021, legislators and Gov. Roy Cooper came to terms on a bill that modifies implementation of the Read to Achieve program, with the goal of achieving statewide reading proficiency by the third grade.

While the literacy statistics for young students in the pandemic era are disheartening, they also demonstrate how poor literacy instruction was even before the arrival of COVID-19, Stoops added.

“Despite well-funded efforts to improve literacy instruction in the early grades, proficiency rates on state standardized tests plateaued for years before the pandemic,” he said. “The post-pandemic drop demands a renewed focus on the science of reading. Fortunately, state lawmakers and Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt are strong supporters of evidence-based literacy instruction for developing readers.”

The Amplify report made five recommendations to work toward a solution:

  • Administer benchmark assessments three times per year to monitor levels of risk for reading difficulties.
  • Spend more time on literacy instruction, and make sure it is evidence-based instruction (based in the Science of Reading).
  • Organize the daily calendar to include time beyond grade-level instruction.
  • Be creative about scheduling and staffing to ensure this time is prioritized.
  • Support instructional staff in gaining knowledge about the Science of Reading.

Data for the Amplify report was drawn from about 400,000 students across 1,300 schools in 37 states.