Crucial third grade reading scores dropped while schools and districts struggled in the pandemic

By: - June 23, 2021 7:00 am

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

On the Gulf Coast in North Florida, Sharon Hathcock, the director of instruction for Taylor County schools, saw some troubling numbers.

Her kids’ third grade reading scores from state exams had plummeted during the COVID pandemic. Only 39 percent of 3rd graders met the target for passing the state test in the spring of 2021, according to results from Florida’s Department of Education.

Hathcock said that the 39 percent represented a drop of 20 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time kids took the 3rd grade reading exam. (Due to the pandemic, there were no state exams in the spring 2020.)

Across the state, the vast majority of school districts saw declines in the reading scores, as schools struggled to keep up with their trajectory for performance in the pandemic. Some kids were getting instruction online at home, others were in traditional brick-and-mortar schools and still others had a hybrid approach.

The first batch of scores from the spring 2021 reading exams illustrate the pandemic’s impact on student achievement and learning progress. The results can be considered a harbinger for what may come as test results trickle in from other subjects.

Overall, fewer kids took the 3rd grade reading exams this spring, with 198,628 students tested compared to 216,974 in 2019. The drop in test takers may or may not have made a difference in the scores, depending on the testing turnout in districts and schools.

Statewide, the average drop in the 3rd grade reading exams was 4 percentage points across districts. Overall, 54 percent of 3rd graders passed the spring reading exams compared to 58 percent in 2019.

But about half of the 67 districts in 2021 had larger drops then the 4-point figure, the state data show.

Reading results in Glades County in south Central Florida dropped by 24 percentage points compared to 2019, the biggest drop in the state.

North Florida school districts in Gilchrist, Franklin, Hamilton and Jefferson had drops between 15 and 17 percentage points compared to 2019 results, the state data show.

In the largest counties, the numbers weren’t as low.

Results in the massive Miami-Dade school district dropped by just 3 percentage points. And Palm Beach and Orange Counties showed no difference in 3rd grade reading scores in 2021 compared to 2019.

But Broward County schools’ scores went down by 7 percentage points, according to the data.

Keep in mind that the scores considered passing on the reading exam — a score of at least 3 — represents only a “satisfactory” effort, meaning, a student “may need additional support for the next grade/course.”

Scores of 4 and 5 are considered proficient or a mastery of the subject. Only 26 percent of students scored a 4 or 5, according to the state data.

Meanwhile, 23 percent of students scored at the bottom rung, a score of 1, and 22 percent, scored at a 2.

The results for 3rd grade reading are crucial as students move through school.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, reading becomes a foundational tool for the rest of a student’s school career in every subject after entering the fourth grade.

“Third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn,’” the NCSL wrote in 2019.

The Florida Department of Education also explains that, “Students who have trouble understanding what they read find it very difficult to keep up.”

“As students progress through the grades, the text and tasks that are required for students to understand what they are reading are more complex,” former Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote in an informational document to parents about the importance of third-grade reading skills.

“Textbooks become more difficult to understand; reading passages are longer. Students use reference books, websites and other written materials to do research for history reports, science projects and other schoolwork.”

For the latter half of the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic was first ramping up in the United States, Florida’s standardized testing was cancelled, meaning that the state has a hole in the department’s data for that year.

But for the 2020-21 academic year, statewide assessments were back on, and the 3rd grade English Language Arts scores, usually considered a reading exam, can see just how much of an impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on student learning and academic achievement.

The scores for the 3rd grade ELA are used to determine if a student is reading at grade-level; results for low-performing students could mean getting extra help to get back on track in reading. And if reading exam scores are too low, some students may need to repeat the 3rd grade.

However, for 2021, based on Department of Education orders, a student may be promoted to grade four, “regardless of the absence of an English Language Arts (ELA) assessment score or the absence of a Level 2 or higher ELA score,” depending on the circumstances.

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.