The Crisis of Post-Pandemic Early Elementary Literacy in Montgomery County MD (part one of a four-part series)

Every year, the Montgomery County Public School system utilizes a multi-faceted assessment tool to gauge academic success.  It’s called the Evidence of Learning assessment.  It is a very sophisticated way of measuring progress in a given area.  One such area is referred to as ‘literacy readiness’ or the ability to gain new knowledge through reading.  In Kindergarten through 2nd grade, while students are busy acquiring the necessary skills to read, the rest of their curriculum is introduced through non-literary medium – pictures, objects, activities, etc.  But by 3rd grade, the curriculum for all subjects – math, social studies, etc. – assumes the student can read.   The Evidence of Learning test measures this readiness.

The Evidence of Learning assessment is an amalgam of three sources of measurement: state-mandated tests (like the PARCC and MAP tests), district-wide tests administered by MCPS, and the teacher’s own grading system.  Some of these are more objective, that is, consistent over a broad area but not necessarily differentiating individual learning styles or competencies, and others are more subjective – sensitive to individual abilities but possibly harder to compare across the board.  Thus, if a student demonstrates proficiency in ust two out of three of these measurements, the child is considered ready to move on to the next grade level.

In 2019, this assessment was taken for all rising 3rd graders.  Across Montgomery County, 82% of all 3rd graders demonstrated proficiency in at least two measurements and were considered ready for 3rd grade.  And the other 18%?  Special educational needs such as autism, ADHD, etc. may account for some of these as well as the unique struggles of the immigrant family to prepare a student adequately for the classroom experience.

Did these 18% get held back?  Typically not.  Over the years they have found that the socio-psychological effects of getting held back year after year will more negatively affect a child’s education than letting them continue.  In the past, they could get away with moving forward because there were enough resources in subsequent grades to give individualized attention to those who needed to catch up.

Then the pandemic hit.  It is difficult to overestimate the impact of this worldwide phenomenon on the education of our youngest.  It is summarized well by the EdSurge Research group:

“The long-running pandemic has disrupted every facet of education. But the early childhood sector has been particularly devastated. Over the past 16 months [leading up to July 2021], young children have experienced learning setbacks and fewer social experiences, while their educators have endured degraded working conditions, stress from job uncertainty and mental health declines.” (see full article)

If any one aspect of the education process had been altered, learning would have been hindered.  But so many all at once created an academic wasteland: teacher-student contact severely restricted, distractions prolific, family mental health in a tailspin, and teacher burnout pervasive.  To further exacerbate the problem, preschool enrollment dropped significantly, depriving many more youngsters the basic “A, B, Cs” they usually come into kindergarten with.

But ask any educator which academic year was worse – 2020 to 2021 or 2021 to 2022? – and invariably they will tell you it was the latter.  From March of 2020 to the winter of 2021, we survived; we did what we had to do just to avoid complete breakdown.  But starting in the fall of 2021, teachers, parents, and students were asked to start facing the losses and discerning how they would be made up for.  This may have been the most disillusioning process of the whole era: facing the learning deficit.

Along those lines, the Evidence of Learning assessment was administered last fall, as it has been each year.  Whereas in 2019, 82% of rising 3rd graders passed (two out of three indicators), in 2021 only 46% demonstrated literacy readiness, a drop of 36% (see MCPS stats)  A full third of the class that would have normally passed didn’t.

While you’re at it, ask that same educator if the Montgomery County Public School system has the resources in place to work remedially with one third of every class to get them back up to grade level as the curriculum roars on.  See if they give you a straight answer.

The pandemic brought many crises to our community.  I would argue the crisis with the longest-term impact on our community is the threat of widespread illiteracy among kids who will be teenagers within a few years and entering the workforce a few years after that – we hope!

You think those statistics are bad?  Check out next week’s blog when we break the statistics out for the most vulnerable populations.

For this reason, the Germantown Global Connection is starting a literacy tutoring program targeting one of the hardest-hit elementary schools in the area.  We will need volunteer tutors.  Watch for details coming soon.

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