The Director of the Institute of Education Sciences, Mark Schneider, said that reading scores went down five points. Although this first report is only for nine-year-olds, this age group is considered a major benchmark in reading progress. Therefore, the 5-point drop in reading scores causes concern.
The 2022 Nation’s Report Card measured improvement from the start of the COVID pandemic to the return of in-class instruction in 2022. Unfortunately, there was no improvement, not even with students in the 90th percentile.
Schneider went on to say,
“The declines were not uniform across student groups: not surprisingly, students most in need suffered the greatest declines.”
“In reading, the corresponding drop was 10 points for the lowest performers and 2 points for top performers. Our lowest performing students are falling further and further behind.”
What does the drop in reading scores mean for students in the classroom?
For the past five years, students scoring in the highest 90th percentile of test takers have inched up one or two points. This year, even students in the 90th percentile declined two points. There was no advancement. I am sure that students in the 90th percentile will make up this loss, but what about students in the lowest 10th percentile of test takers?
Student scores in the lowest percentile went down 10 points. These low scores were recorded for all regions of the country and almost every race and nationality. Unfortunately, students of color had some of the lowest scores. We need to help all students, but we especially need to help students who are struggling.
As Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, stated,
“Our struggling students are struggling more than they ever have before.”
Another unexpected finding from the NCES report was that the gap between suburban schools and city schools has narrowed. Was that because of the pandemic? It’s not clear. Time will tell.
We all expected low scores because of the pandemic, but what does this mean for the classroom? What does it mean for struggling low achieving or failing students?
Some, like Dr. Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, are saying,
“I don’t think we can expect to see these 9-year-olds [lowest 10th percentile] catch up by the time they leave high school…. This is not something that is going to disappear quickly.”
I disagree that we cannot help the low achieving students catch up. If we change our teaching methods in the classroom and if we change how we tutor struggling students, we can bring all of these students up to their age level in reading. Why do I believe this? Because of my firsthand experience in working with students in the lowest 10th percentile group.
Yes, a 15-year-old did learn to read before she graduated from high school. She had failed for nine straight years. The school was giving her coloring book pages to keep her busy so that she wouldn’t get into a fight. She had an extensive violence record. She learned to read in 3 ½ years. It wasn’t easy, but with vowel clustering she learned to read. The school had tried balanced literacy, reading recovery, and even one-on-one systematic phonics tutoring. She was reading at the pre-kindergarten level when she entered my program. Before she graduated, the school principal asked what made her stop fighting every day. The student said, “She taught me to read.”
It is never too late to teach a student to read—any student.
I had a 5th grader enter my program. He was reading between 2nd and 3rd grade with very low comprehension. He was also having trouble with aggressive behavior at school. After only 21 weeks of one-hour, once-a-week tutoring using vowel clustering, he was reading at the 6th grade level with strong comprehension scores.
These two students were both taught using my one-on-one tutoring method from my newest book: Why Can’t We Teach Children to Read: Oh, but Wait, We Can, A Step-by-Step Plan for Teaching Your Child to Read. This book has everything needed to teach any struggling student to read. It’s written for parents, teachers, and tutors.
I insist that it is possible to teach struggling students. The problem is not the students, nor the teachers, nor the parents. It’s also not poverty or low socio-economic neighborhoods. Actually, many of the students that I teach come from the housing projects in their neighborhood.
The problem is the methods that we are using to teach struggling students.
The Justice Department has said that “delinquency, violence, and crime are welded to reading failure.” Bullying in school is also said to share a direct link with reading failure. We’ll talk more about these psychological harms later. It has been estimated that 85% of adolescents and youth in the courts are classified as “functionally illiterate” and that 70% of prison inmates are not able to read above the fourth-grade level.
For more on this research, see Chapter 1 in After-School Programming and Intrinsic Motivation: Teaching At-Risk Students to Read.
For more on the struggle over teaching methods, see: Reading Wars are Over! Phonics Failed. Whole Language Failed. Balanced Literacy Failed. Who Won? It Certainly Wasn’t the Students.
Take a second look at the graph
Everyone is blaming COVID for the dramatically low scores, and COVID and the pandemic are obviously the cause of the major drop in reading scores over the past two years. Look again though at the graph at the top of the page. The last two years are not the only problem.
No, low test scores in reading didn’t just start with COVID. Educators have been fighting over reading for years, while struggling students have been failing for years.
Remember, we said earlier in Tutoring Hint #4 that over 60% of students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade could not read at grade level according to the 2019 Nation’s Report Card. The 2019 test scores were recorded before the pandemic.
For earlier research, see: Tutoring Hint #4: Never Give Up
So, yes, COVID is the cause of the drastic drop from 2020 to 2022, but what about the other low scores? What about the students who were struggling and failing before COVID?
We have a major reading failure problem, and it is time for a change.
So, what should we do about these low scores?
Swapping phonics for whole language is not the answer. Yes, phonics may help the students in the 90th percentile, but systematic phonics will not help the students in the low 10th percentile group.
Remember what the National Reading Panel said in their 2000 report? The National Reading Panel stated that, “systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language]…. However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades” (p. 94).
For more on the National Reading Panel, see: Tutoring Hint #8: Stick with Real Scientific Research in Reading. Do Not Fall for Gimmicks. Scientific Research Is Helpful for Tutoring.
What about low-achieving students?
The low 10th percentile group of test takers are “low-achieving readers.” Phonics will not teach these low-achieving students to read, even phonics advocates agree. We must offer a different method for teaching struggling students.
We can teach struggling students, but we must change our teaching methods to do so. I’ve even had failing students move up four grade levels in one year with vowel clustering. We have the teaching methods to teach each and every struggling student how to read. We just refuse to turn loose of the old battle between phonics and whole language and try something new, even when vowel clustering has been proven through university research to succeed. No, we’d rather see students fail than change our ideas and our teaching methods.
As Thomas Kane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education explained, we cannot just keep doing what we are presently doing.
“Somehow, we’ve got to figure out how to help students learn even more per year in the next few years, or these losses will become permanent. And that will be a tragedy.”
It's time for a change in how we teach students to read. Phonics is not enough. COVID caused the drastic 2-year drop in 2022, but it’s not the only cause of low reading scores.
Tutoring is one of the methods being advocated by the schools and government educational agencies.
Tutoring is a perfect way to help struggling students. Through tutoring, we can use a different teaching method—a method that works with low achieving struggling students. I use vowel clustering, and it works.