Designing Effective K-3 Literacy Policies and Navigating the Pandemic

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Written by: Adrienne Fischer
Sept. 17, 2020

By now, it is no surprise that early literacy skills are fundamental to educational success. However, teaching literacy is complicated; as such, states have been grappling with low literacy achievement for decades. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has reported relatively stagnant proficiency scores for fourth graders and even a decline from 2017 to 2019. Gaps in proficiency exceed 20% or more for several racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, indicating that these students are not receiving the supports needed to become successful readers. Learning loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated these gaps.

State policymakers are actively building literacy systems to raise scores. Our Policy Brief released this week explores robust literacy policies for K-3 students. Best practices show that strategies for prevention, intervention and assessment working in tandem can create ideal conditions for young readers. This brief explores some of the strategies states use and how policies can be designed to better serve students who need literacy support.

Research shows that children reading proficiently by the end of third grade are better equipped for future academic and workforce success. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced states to make difficult budget cut decisions. In Tennessee, a literacy initiative championed by the governor was tabled in June because of insufficient funding. Many states are facing similar challenges, but the pandemic draws attention to the importance of providing supports to students in early grades who are still learning to read.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education waived federal testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year, and most states suspended third grade retention requirements except in extreme cases. Several states have announced their intent to seek a waiver for testing requirements through the 2020-21 school year, but the department recently issued a letter to state chiefs indicating that such waivers will not be granted.

The suspension of spring testing highlights the importance of other assessment methods. Learning loss from the pandemic is likely to vary widely across student groups, especially among those less likely to receive consistent virtual instruction because of inadequate internet or device access. For children in K-3 grades, educators will likely need to provide students at different skill levels with literacy instruction informed by developmentally appropriate screeners and formative assessments. In many cases, this instruction will take place in a partial or fully virtual environment.

Given the impacts on learning during the pandemic, below are three questions that policymakers can consider to support K-3 literacy instruction:

    • For younger children with reading difficulties, are there opportunities to safely supplement virtual learning with periodic in-person literacy interventions? Many literacy interventions involve intensive instruction delivered in small groups or one-on-one, and it may be difficult to translate these services to a virtual environment.
    • How can states assess and close the learning gap over time? To address students’ learning loss, teachers may need actionable data matched with the proper resources, which may include social-emotional supports, intensive interventions or increased instructional time.
    • How will budget cuts impact literacy instruction? Many states and districts are facing significant shortfalls, which may result in educator or support staff reductions. Such reductions during the Great Recession resulted in increased class sizes, making individualized literacy instruction more challenging.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem — children develop literacy skills at different rates and trajectories even without the added challenge of interrupted instruction. Education Commission of the States will continue to track this issue and recently presented findings from our Policy Brief and upcoming 50-State Comparison on K-3 Policies to a group of Wisconsin legislators and staff during their Symposia Series on Early Literacy Policies. Stay tuned for our updated 50-State Comparison later this month.

Author profile

Adrienne Fischer

Adrienne Fischer

As a senior policy analyst, Adrienne focuses on issues related to early learning. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Adrienne covered education policy issues with the National Conference of State Legislatures and earned a master’s degree in public administration. When Adrienne is not hard at work, she can be found enjoying the outdoors or immersed in a good book.

Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States

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