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New report: Third-grade reading is a 'bright spot' for learning recovery

Students at Aycock Elementary in Vance County in their classroom working on computers at their desk.
Matt Ramey
/
For WUNC
File photo of students at Aycock Elementary in Vance County. A new report from North Carolina education officials shows that students in all grades that are required to take annual state tests have seen progress in most subjects for the last two years in a row.

North Carolina students are making progress to recover from pandemic disruptions to their education.

The State Board of Education received a positive update Wednesday from North Carolina education officials who are studying year-over-year academic data. The Office of Learning Recovery at the Department of Public Instruction has been carefully tracking all students' state test scores with help from the Cary-based analytics company SAS.

The latest report shows students in all grades that are required to take annual state tests have seen progress in most subjects for the last two years in a row. Only eighth grade science saw a slight decline in average test scores last spring compared to 2022.

Students have shown year-over-year progress in all math and reading scores two years straight.

The greatest gains are in third grade reading, which is nearly back to the pre-pandemic trends; and high school English, where students are now outperforming pre-pandemic levels.

“That certainly is a bright spot,” said John White, a software engineer at SAS who presented the data to the State Board of Education, referring to the gains in third grade.

The 2023 state budget awarded SAS a $550,000 contract to track learning recovery in K-12 public schools from 2023-2025.

This graph from SAS shows year-over-year average statewide scores in end-of-grade reading tests for all NC third graders. The black
NC Department of Public Instruction
This graph from SAS shows year-over-year average statewide scores in end-of-grade reading tests for all NC third graders. The black dotted line shows the average pre-pandemic trend line if it were extended to 2021-2023. The blue dotted line shows the average third grade reading scores from 2017-2019 before the pandemic began.

SAS used data from 2013 to 2019 to establish a trend line for how North Carolina students were performing in state-tested subjects before the pandemic. That allows the Office of Learning Recovery to compare test results in 2022 and 2023 to pre-pandemic test scores.

The Office of Learning Recovery’s Director of Research and Evaluation Jeni Corn has hosted workshops around the state to present localized data to educators and school boards to help them target interventions at the students who need the most support.

“We were one of the first states to not only share our state level findings publicly, but also to get local level reports and data into the hands of our local leaders,” Corn said.

“Folks kept asking us … 'How will we know when we have recovered?’” Corn added.

The report released this week tries to answer that question by comparing average statewide scores in math, reading and science to how North Carolina students were trending in those subjects before the pandemic.

White presented graphs showing that the average statewide test scores on annual state tests have improved year-over-year in most subjects since the pandemic began.

“There is definitely a pandemic drop in 2021 and then a subsequent recovery in pretty much all of the grades,” White said. “Obviously some of these grades still have more room to grow, more room to recover.”

Presenters stressed that the data in this report is a population study based on the test results of all North Carolina students who take end-of-grade and end-of-course exams, rather than a sample of students.

“The purpose of the Office of Learning Recovery was exactly this,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the State Board of Education. “The impetus was to collect data to leverage our state's incredible amount of student-level data based on our collection of testing history for all students to create this first-of-its-kind report in the nation.”

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Education Education
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org