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Elementary students made growth last year in skills that lead to reading proficiency, new data show

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  • The data @ncpublicschools received this month will help it set a baseline for measuring progress as it implements the state’s science of reading law. #nced
  • “We still have a long way to go, but the results we’re seeing from last year are clearly pointing in the right direction," @CTruittNCDPI said about the data released earlier this month. #nced

The Department of Public Instruction received assessment data this month that will help it set a baseline for measuring effective literacy instruction as it implements the state’s science of reading law. The data show North Carolina’s young learners grew significantly in foundational literacy skills between the start and end of the last school year.

According to a release from DPI citing the 2021-22 school year data, K-2 students across the state showed favorable gains in five foundational skills – phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension — compared to the national sample.

About a month ago, DPI began receiving data from Amplify, owner of the mCLASS assessment which is administered to elementary school students across the state at least three times a year (beginning, middle, and end of the year). mCLASS is also administered to 1.6 million other children across about 35 states.

DPI’s release, issued Thursday, does not include the raw data, but Amplify did confirm the accuracy of the top-sheet numbers released.

The release also says students in third grade showed gains, but it only provides percentages for K-2. DPI leaders said that was an intentional decision to avoid confusion when end-of-third-grade test scores are released next week. Those may look very different because, while assessment data measures progress in gaining literacy skills, EOG tests attempt to measure actual reading proficiency. 

“We still have a long way to go, but the results we’re seeing from last year are clearly pointing in the right direction,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in the release.

The data is good, but we can’t overstate it

North Carolina students in kindergarten, first, and second grades each began last year scoring lower in assessment benchmarks than the national sample. North Carolina’s kindergartners and first graders ended the year performing better than the national sample, and the second graders performed the same.

While the significant gains and the gap North Carolina students closed on the national sample are encouraging, said DPI’s Director of Office of Early Learning Amy Rhyne, further study is needed to figure out what exactly is happening.

The gains occurred after the state enacted the Excellent Public Schools Act, which mandates that early grade literacy instruction align with the science of reading — but Rhyne cautioned against reading too much into the timing.

“We’re looking at that data and being careful not to say it’s directly correlated with LETRS training,” she said.

The 2021 reading law changes a lot around the state’s approach to reading instruction. You’ve probably most often heard about Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), though. DPI is providing LETRS training for teachers across the state. LETRS covers some of the research and asks teachers to practice research-aligned instruction on a sample of students during the training.

The state put districts into three cohorts, with teachers in the first cohort starting the two-year training at the beginning of last year and the third cohort starting now. 

According to Truitt, who has seen some of the early breakdown of the numbers, students taught by teachers who started LETRS training first outperformed students taught by teachers who are just starting the training now.

What the mCLASS assessment measures

While it’s too early to draw any causal links between the science of reading law and assessment results, the data does provide a baseline for DPI to measure future student progress as the law is implemented. And assessments, which measure both progress and risk for things like dyslexia, shows how students are performing in the skills that lead to proficiency.

“It’s reading to learn versus learning to read,” Rhyne said, clarifying that assessments show where kids are in the process of learning to read while EOGs are testing for whether they can read to learn.

According to Amplify spokesperson Kay Moffett, mCLASS assessments provide teachers with data they can use to target instruction based on what reading skills students have or need to learn more fully. 

It measures things like fluency with letters and phonemes (the sound segments that make up a word), as well as word reading fluency and vocabulary. Here is an example of what’s measured:

The assessments increase in complexity as a student progresses from beginning of year to end of year, according to DPI’s Read to Achieve Implementation Coordinator Kelley Bendheim. That’s because students’ foundational skills are expected to progress through the year.

How DPI will use the data

Rhyne said she is not expecting to see significant impact on reading proficiency from the science of reading law for at least a couple years, and that the EOG scores coming out soon will likely still reflect challenges students and teachers faced during the pandemic.

Digging into the assessment data, however, will help the state identify who needs most help and where the positive outliers exist so it can look for best practices to disseminate on a larger scale, Rhyne said.

Amplify is providing DPI with the data broken down by subgroups — such as by race as well as LETRS cohort. DPI will use the breakdowns to ask questions like whether districts that performed well are assessing students more than three times a year. It’s also going to explore how assessment data impacted instruction and interventions.

The Office of Early Learning is partnering with the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration to further analyze the assessment data. Both are partnering on the project with the North Carolina Collaboratory, which issued a request for proposals to find an outside research partner. The request for proposal says that work will begin in October.

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.