Young students still lag on school readiness post-pandemic
Today's early elementary schoolchildren, who were ages 1-4 in spring 2020 when COVID-19 shut down schools and early learning programs, are continuing to show a lack of school readiness in math and reading skills, according to fall 2023 results from Curriculum Associates, an assessment company behind the i-Ready Diagnostic tool.
More kindergartners in fall 2023 — who were 1-2 years old in March 2020 — began the school year below grade level in reading compared to kindergartners from fall 2019, for example.
The data aligns with other research showing post-pandemic concerns about academic and social-emotional school preparedness among young students. Lower levels of kindergarten readiness are linked to poorer outcomes in elementary through high school academics, according to research.
The Curriculum Associates data includes a nationally representative sampling across fall 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023 of 7.8 million K-2 students for math and 5.9 million K-2 students for reading.
"Though in some subgroups there were only small declines from pre- to post pandemic, the percentage of students beginning the year well below grade level has grown substantially in some grades, with no sign of recovery or return to pre-pandemic levels," the report said.
For students now in 1st grade, and who were 2-3 years old in spring 2020, the analysis shows 12.5% of students performed two grades below in math in fall 2023 compared to 10.5% in fall 2019.
Students in 2nd grade, who were ages 3 and 4 in March 2020, made small increases in average scale scores, but their performances remained behind pre-pandemic levels. About 36.1% are testing two grades below in math compared to 27% in 2019.
Performance gaps are also evident when broken down by race. In schools where more than 50% of students are either Black or Hispanic, fewer students are entering the school year on grade level. Comparatively, majority White schools show greater proportions of students performing on grade level at school entry. This pattern was seen for both reading and math performances.
The findings are one of the first glimpses into the impact of the pandemic on students in K-2, according to Kristen Huff, Curriculum Associates' vice president for assessment and research.
"Nationwide, we are seeing that students who were ages one to four at the start of the pandemic are coming to school less prepared, lagging behind expectations, and showing limited signs of recovery, particularly in math," Huff told K-12 Dive in an email.
She added that the data highlights the challenges early childhood educators face. It also underscores that early intervention is critical.
"We are hopeful that this data can help encourage additional research while also leading to solutions that will help students achieve success in the future,” Huff said.
A bright spot in the report was the increase in phonics performance for reading across all grade levels, with fall 2023 performances making a climb toward pre-pandemic levels.
However, when looking at number and operations achievement in math, all grade levels show stagnant grade placement results between fall 2022 and fall 2023. In 1st grade, for example, 87.6% of students tested one or two grade levels behind in number and operation skills in fall 2023, compared to 87.5% in fall 2022. In grade 2, 82.8% tested one or two grades behind, which was the same percentage from fall 2022 testing.