How the Shutdown Affected Student Performance: Conclusion (part 8 of 8) – JP


This is the final article in the How the Shutdown Affected Student Performance series. This series was inspired by two recent statements made by Croydon Village School Principal Nicole Lackie to the Croydon School Board. First, she claimed the pandemic shutdowns caused poor student performance. Then, she stated that teachers don’t really know how to teach students to read. Our goal was to determine if either was true.

To that end, we reviewed and published student results on national and statewide standardized tests in New Hampshire and Vermont. We also asked how local elementary schools in VT and NH perceived student performance and taught reading.

Two things stood out
The first is that people didn’t seem to be aware of how bad things were, especially in their own schools, before COVID closed them. Because poor student test scores predated the pandemic shutdown, what the shutdown seems to have changed was awareness of how bad things really were. The silver lining of “remote learning” was that it let parents see behind the curtain.

The second is that the education establishment has been able to defend such a poor record for such a long time.

One method used to divert attention from poor test results is to focus on relative results. School superintendents and principals readily say “We’re doing as well as, or better than, most other states,” without mentioning that none of them have even half their students performing at grade level.

A second technique used is focusing on minor improvements in results. They’ll say, “With our new approach to reading, our test scores went up,” parenthetically adding “from 38% proficiency to 42%,” which is still poor. As the data shows, such “improvements” are short-lived. They’ll also use local “diagnostic” tests to show how students are “progressing,” with little or any acknowledgment that they remain unable to read at grade level.

One of the most visible tactics used is to blame poor test scores on insufficient funding, regardless of how much spending has increased overall, especially during these times of decreasing enrollment. These claims of insufficient funds are often coupled with condemnation of “the other party’s” policies, which are then condemned for “undermining” or “destroying” public schools.

A fourth practice of distraction is to draw attention away from the lack of competence by stirring up outrage. Parents who are upset about porn in libraries, boys in girls’ restrooms, or the Parental Bill of Rights don’t have time to get upset about the fact that more than half the kids can’t read.

Now for some specifics
In 2016, 61% of New Hampshire’s students scored proficient or above on the New Hampshire Standardized Assessment System (NHSAS) test. In 2019, the year before the pandemic shutdown, that number had fallen to 56%. In 2022, it stood at 51%. As the chart showed, the pandemic shutdown did not accelerate the downward trajectory.

On the JP of Educational Progress (NAEP), the percentage of NH students performing proficient or above has fluctuated between 33% and 45% since at least 1998, meaning that more than half to two-thirds of New Hampshire’s students haven’t been reading at grade level for 25 years.

In 2018, the percentage of Vermont’s students scoring proficient or above on its statewide assessment, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test, ranged from 50% to 55%, depending on the grade. Those scores slipped in 2019, before the pandemic. In 2022, they ranged from 43% to 45%, with some grades showing that the pandemic mildly accelerated their decline. The data indicates that about one student in 10 did worse in reading after the shutdowns, in addition to the more than 5 out of 10 that already weren’t proficient.

On the NAEP, the percentage of Vermont students testing proficient or better has ranged from 34% to 47% since 2002.

While the shutdown may have created a small problem for reading, it didn’t create the big problem that everyone seems to be ignoring, which is that more than half to two thirds of the students in both states are reading below grade level and have been for more than two decades.

Of the five elementary schools profiled in this series, the reading scores for three of them, the Croydon Village School, Killington Elementary School and Grantham Village School, increased or stayed the same after the shutdown. Washington Elementary School had a significant drop in scores. The Albert Bridge School had no school-level state score data available to review post-pandemic but their scores from 2016 to 2017 dropped dramatically. So, your “mileage may vary” from school to school. Therefore, parents need to pay attention to how well their own children are doing in their respective schools.

Why are the scores so low
One possibility is that state standardized tests are not a true accountability measure. The results have no effect on students moving from one grade to the next or graduating. It could be that students don’t take the test seriously and the scores don’t reflect what they actually know. Some believe that if the tests were “high stakes,” meaning their results somehow impacted their ability to progress in school, students would take them seriously. Legislation has been filed in New Hampshire to do this.

Another reason could be there is something about the nature of a school setting that interferes with a child’s ability to learn to read. It’s such a personal skill, maybe it has to be done one-on-one.

Perhaps children need to be developmentally ready to learn to read. If children aren’t ready to read, efforts to teach them are futile and may actually harm their ability to read.

One parent interviewed for this series said that everyone she knows in her affluent town (Grantham) gets tutors for their children; that the school has not succeeded in teaching their children to read. (This point is emphasized in the “Sold a Story” podcast, which is mentioned below.) It may be why rich kids get better scores than poor kids. This parent’s statement underscores what Croydon Village School Principal Nicole Lackie told the Croydon School Board in June, which is that schools don’t know how to teach kids to read.

Such a statement ignores decades of research on the science of reading. However, it does speak to the “wars” between proponents of “phonics” and those who advocate for “whole-word” and other “top-down” approaches to teaching reading. These wars started over a hundred years ago and continue to this day with the “cueing” method (explained in other articles in this series) now being used.

People have deep-seated beliefs about the best way to teach reading, and many don’t think phonics is the right way. But when 22 students out of 30 are performing at the lowest levels of reading, which we’ve reported is the case in Croydon, questions about a school’s approach are warranted. Even if “only” a quarter of a school’s students are reading below grade level, that’s 1 out of every four kids. Approaches need to be questioned, not just by teachers but by parents and taxpayers as well.

In 3 of the schools interviewed for this series, someone did question student reading performance. Because the methods used to teach reading in Grantham, Killington, and Washington weren’t working, educators took intensive training to understand the science of reading. The training is called “Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling” (LETRS). It explains the findings of reading research to teachers. The course shows teachers how to teach and assess knowledge of the sounds letters make in English (phonemic awareness), how those sounds represent letters that can create words (phonics), and how and why to teach word parts (morphology). It also covers spelling and fluency instruction.

Research that spans decades continually shows that children need to learn phonics in order to become good readers. Using brain scans and eye-tracking technology, researchers have continually found that good readers process virtually every letter in every word as they read. Some children catch on quickly. Others need to be taught how to do it directly. Phonics isn’t the only thing they need, but it provides the core for reading. The science of reading research is summarized in an engaging podcast series called “Sold a Story,” produced by Emily Hanford, an investigative education journalist at American Public Media.

The schools whose staff took the training are changing how they teach reading. Washington Elementary School is expanding dedicated phonics time from K-1 to include grades 2-3. Killington Elementary School is changing its curriculum. Grantham Village School is supplementing the cueing approach with other programming that focuses on decoding and phonological awareness.

Teachers in Croydon haven’t taken the training, nor have they changed their approach to teaching reading. Principal Lackie declined to be interviewed.

While promising, the changes being made by these few schools may not be a magic pill. While teachers start to understand how people learn to read, some studies show that they still don’t know how to teach reading. Much of their training has been with the now disproven Cueing Theory approach championed by Fountas & Pinnell.

In the history of public schooling, the education establishment has tried different approaches every few years for decades. Sometimes, there are small improvements. Other times, it’s like the tide, which comes in a few feet and then goes out a few feet, but there’s no permanent change. For more than half a century, reading proficiency, at best, has hovered around 50%.

The efforts made to contact schools
To write this series, it was necessary to interview a variety of elementary school administrators in NH and VT. Principals and superintendents were contacted via email or web forms on their websites. Some contact information was hard to find. Others, including the Fall Mountain Regional School District and Oak Grove School in VT, didn’t provide email addresses on their websites. Fall Mountain even made it hard to find out who the principal was.

As mentioned, Principal Nicole Lackie of the Croydon Village School declined to be interviewed about the school or her comments to the Croydon School Board in June, comments that inspired this series.

Cavendish Town Elementary School Principal Dale Mann, Ludlow Elementary School Principal Debra Fishwick, and Chester Andover Elementary School Principal Katherine Fogg were all new to their positions and could not speak to their school’s reading performance or teaching histories. Superintendent Dr. Sydney Leggett spoke about the Grantham Village School, but being new to the position, she was unfamiliar with the elementary schools in Cornish and Plainfield and unable to answer questions about them.

The following schools did not respond to email or webmail form requests to discuss their test scores or approach to teaching reading: Principal Stephanie Korb at John D. Perkins Elementary School in Marlow, NH; Principal Jill Pinard at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard, NH; Superintendent Donna Magoon of Newport School District, NH; Superintendent Michael Tempesta of Claremont School District, NH; Principal Robert Clark of Richards Elementary School, Newport NH; Assistant Superintendent and Acting Principal David Cohn of Union Street Elementary School in Springfield, VT; and Principal Doug Kussius of the White River School in White River Junction, VT.

Principal Kelly Dias of the Academy School in Brattleboro, VT, and Principal Amelia Donahey of Ottauquechee Elementary School in Quechee, VT, responded to our emails, but we were not able to set interview times with them.

In total, four interviews were conducted out of 18 requests. This information is disclosed to provide our readers with an understanding of the efforts made to gather and present this information and encourage the curious to make their own inquiries about reading performance and teaching methods at their local elementary schools.

Prior installments in this series, which include all of the data referenced herein, were published in the Eagle Times on September 9, 12, 14, 16, 19, 21, and 23.

This article originally appeared in the Eagle Times. Some minor edits were made in this version. You can find the entire series at the Eagle times and at JP.

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