Cedar Rapids Schools taking steps to remedy drop in reading scores

Published: Dec. 16, 2020 at 11:24 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - As the Iowa Department of Education has reported a drop in literacy screening scores for students in kindergarten through third grade, the state’s second-largest school system, the Cedar Rapids Community School District, said its elementary reading scores reflect that decrease as well.

Elementary school students in Cedar Rapids schools are typically tested three times a year, in fall, winter, and spring, to see if they have hit their reading benchmark, meaning they are reading at the level where they should be for their grade.

“At a kindergarten level, we’re looking for, do you know your letters and your letter sounds and the parts of words and the parts of letters, versus a fifth-grader is more, are you reading with comprehension in mind,” John Rice, the district’s executive director for teaching and learning, said.

The fall score is usually the lowest of the three scores, which Rice attributes to the “summer slump,” the effect of students not regularly doing school work over the summer break.

Since the 2017-2018 school year, the percent of Cedar Rapids elementary school students hitting their benchmark for the fall testing period has been between 55% and 60%. This fall, however, that percentage fell to 47%, after students had been out of the classroom since mid-March because of the pandemic.

“To see this kind of drop is disheartening, but we also know that when students aren’t regularly engaging in their work, it’s tough,” Rice said.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, statewide K-3 reading scores have dropped across the board, between 5% for kindergarten and 21% for first grade from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

A report on third-grade literacy, given during a state board work session on Nov. 18, said these scores show the extra supports schools are giving to students who aren’t where they should be, called “interventions,” aren’t working as well as they should be because of the pandemic.

Rice said Cedar Rapids elementary schools faced an extra challenge: They can’t measure students reading levels and start their interventions based on those scores until the beginning of the school year, which was delayed this year because of the Aug. 10 derecho, which damaged every school building in the district.

“This is a big problem, and we can’t not address it,” he said.

Rice said the Cedar Rapids Community School District has a two-pronged approach to its reading interventions in elementary school.

In addition to the standard reading lessons that are part of the curriculum, students are getting reading help in small groups with teachers, and all elementary students are using a new digital learning service that is tailored to their individual needs.

“If you were above benchmark, and you’re a first-grader really reading at a third-grade level, you’re going to get more third-grade level lessons, even though you’re really a first-grader, which is great,” Rice said. “And contrary, if you’re a third-grader who’s reading at a first-grade level, you’re not going to get third-grade lessons, even though you’re a third-grader. You’re going to get first-grade-level lessons.”

Rice said the district has also been more engaged with students’ families than before, with school staff calling families to offer them “specific, targeted ways” they can help their students.

“I think that strategy’s going to pay off big time as well in keeping students connected to their learning and really tying in parents with what they can do to help with learning,” he said.

Ultimately, Rice said he and educators around the country still don’t know to what extent the pandemic has already and will continue to affect students’ learning and how long-lasting these disruptions will be.

He said Cedar Rapids Schools may still need to adapt their approach in the months and years to come to make up for the losses.

“We’re going to be watching our winter and our spring literacy assessments really carefully to figure out what we need to think about, big picture, because we don’t want to lose a whole year,” Rice said. “You only get to be a first-grader one time.”

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