Local schools see drop in elementary reading test scores, better marks for in-person learners

Harlee and Heather Campbell sit outside Sunset Elementary School on Feb. 16, 2021 | Photo by Megan Webber, St. George News.

ST. GEORGE — Elementary students in the Washington and Iron County School Districts tested lower in reading than usual in the 2020-21 school year, officials from both districts said. Data from the Washington County School District also shows that students enrolled in in-person classes tested higher than those enrolled in virtual classes. 

Stock image | Photo by Jovanmandic/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Both districts test students’ reading three times a year through the Acadience reading assessment. Because of the school soft closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the districts did not test students in the spring of 2020. Test results from fall 2020 showed a drop in scores across the board and since then, scores have slowly been rising back to normal. 

The school districts told St. George News about what they’ve been seeing and how they’ve gone from several months of no school to getting their students back on track – both in-person and through virtual learning – despite the challenges of the pandemic. 

Washington County School District

The Washington County School District compared its reading test scores to the state of Utah’s from the beginning and middle of the 2019-20 school year, as well as the beginning and middle of the 2020-21 school year. They found that Washington County students outperformed the state average in almost every grade.

“I would say that a lot of that has to do with the fact that we are in school five days a week,” said Amy Mitchell, executive director of elementary education and Title I for the school district. 

Washington County was one of the earliest in the state to return to in-person learning in August after in-person learning ceased last March.

In fall 2019, every grade except for fifth grade tested higher than the state average. From the beginning of the year to the middle, the state average showed that fifth graders improved by 5 percentage points, while Washington County fifth-graders grew by 7. 

When students returned to school in fall 2020, test scores dropped in every grade across the state and county. For example, Washington County fifth graders’ test scores dropped from 63% above benchmark in winter 2020 to 58% in fall 2020. That means that 58% of fifth graders in the district tested at or above the expected level, and the rest tested lower than they should have. By winter 2021, fifth graders in the district improved to 67% above benchmark. 

The district tried several methods for tackling the drop in test scores. In a sense, teachers had to re-teach everything the students had missed in those months when school was not in session, and teach the new material at the same time. The district implemented a strategy called “WIN time,” short for “What I Need,” where classes spend 30 minutes each day focusing on what each student needs help with, Mitchell explained. 

“Every teacher assesses each student on all of the skills that are the building blocks for reading,” Mitchell said. “If it’s a letter they don’t know, if it’s a diagraph or a blend they don’t know, we pinpoint it and teach it so there’s no guesswork involved.” 

This designated time allows students to have one-on-one time with teachers to focus on the areas where they are struggling. It also allows the students to identify their own goals, recognize where they’re struggling and track their progress. 

Kathy Ball, K-5 literacy coordinator, added that the teachers have been working very hard to catch students up on what they missed in 2020, both through in-person learning and virtual classes.

“They always work hard, but they are so targeted and they are so passionate about trying to close this gap that COVID caused,” she said. “Our virtual teachers are working really, really hard, and we’ve got some wonderful virtual teachers out there who are working really hard to try and meet their students’ needs.”

The sign at Sunset Elementary School in St. George, Utah, Feb. 16, 2021 | Photo by Megan Webber, St. George News.

Heather Campbell, a learning coach at Sunset Elementary School, oversees WIN time at her school and said that having a designated time for every student to focus on something specific has helped drive test scores back up. Students can get one-on-one time or practice something in a group. Before COVID, individual students would be pulled out of class if they needed more help in an area such as reading. Now, all the students get extra time to work on areas where they need help.

“I think that that is a benefit,” Campbell said. “Everyone is doing it. It’s not just a small group of students who are having to get additional support.”

The WIN time has been a benefit for individual students as well, not just the grades as a whole. Campbell’s daughter Harlee, a fifth-grader at Sunset Elementary, struggled with reading and was below benchmark all throughout elementary school. In the past school year, Harlee has improved and is now well above benchmark. She said that it’s largely due to the WIN time she’s received. 

“When we did the reading group, it was a little bit harder and challenging, which is what I like,” she said. “It was super, super hard but when I started to like reading and started reading the big words I understood it and I knew I was gonna get the upper score.”

Virtual learning last spring was challenging for Harlee, she said, because she didn’t feel like she was learning anything. Campbell added that it’s hard to get one-on-one time with teachers in virtual classes, so when the district announced that in-person learning was an option in the fall, there was no question about which way Harlee would attend school.

In addition to fewer opportunities for individualized learning, students enrolled in virtual classes didn’t have the same testing advantages as the in-person students. In winter 2021, students enrolled in virtual classes had to make an appointment to come to school for their Acadience test, said Brad Ferguson, director of assessment, learning and research. 

“My first concern is how many students we test,” Ferguson said. “We can hypothesize, but we don’t know how much the virtual learning students are getting school time. When they’re in school, we know they’re here.”

Ferguson found a difference in test scores between the in-person and virtual students this winter. There are 470 students enrolled in virtual classes in the district, and only 73% of them came in for their test. Of those, 61% tested above benchmark.

In contrast, there are 12,822 students enrolled in in-person classes, and 97% of them were tested, 68% of whom were above benchmark. 

The scary thing is not hearing from the 129 virtual students who did not come in for their test, Ferguson said. There is no way to know where they’re at academically or how they would have tested. Many things can play a role in how much school time a student gets at home, such as computer access and how individual parents run their households. 

“If you come to school, the probability of you doing better is higher, but not by much,” Ferguson said, noting that the difference in students who tested above benchmark was not very large. “We are gratified that it was that close. It’s not a huge difference.”

Iron County School District

The Iron County School District also saw an improvement in Acadience scores between the beginning and middle of this school year. The district has not yet calculated the differences between virtual and in-person test scores, but it has targeted its struggling students in similar ways to Washington County. 

In a file photo, an Iron County School District bus forges through the snow, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 23, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Ashley Peterson, a literacy coach, said that the district has implemented intervention groups, a reading clinic and an early steps program that helps teachers identify what students need help with and also allows for more individualized learning. At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the district was most concerned about the first-grade students. More first graders tested below benchmark in reading than any other grade. 

“We knew it was likely to happen but that tells me the work that our Kindergarten teachers do, especially those last months of school, is critical to get these kids ready for first grade,” Peterson said. “We did see a drop of beginning-of-year scores in every grade level, not a huge difference but big enough we were thinking we’ve got to do something about this.”

When the pandemic hit last March, the Kindergarteners were just beginning to learn how to blend sounds together to make words. As a result of the shutdown, the students missed a critical part of their school year, Peterson said. Teachers have had to teach sound blending and the new first-grade material at the same time.

For virtual students, Peterson said that they have been able to take tests online or opt to come into the school. The experience has not been that bad, she said. Students use an intervention software program that gives them a recommended number of minutes per week to practice a lesson, and if they are struggling, the program can notify a teacher who can set up a one-on-one lesson via Zoom. 

“From talking with the online teachers, what they have said is they see a break, two groups of students in online learning,” Peterson said. “For some, this is totally their niche and their parents are giving them every extra opportunity that they can. For those who maybe struggle academically, it has been a little bit of a challenge. The challenge more aligns with them not being able to get the face-to-face as easily and as immediately as they might in the classroom.”

Steve Burton, director of elementary education, said that he’s pleased with how the Iron County District was able to close the gap when they noticed how the students were struggling with online learning after the shutdown.

“Online learning provided some obstacles, but we’ve been able to make up some of the time,” he said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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