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Students Entering 1st Grade With Better Reading Skills Than Previously, Study Says

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Students are coming into 1st grade with stronger reading skills than they used to, according to a 12-year study from the Ohio State University.

Struggling readers in particular have made steep gains on basic reading skills such as letter identification and phonemic awareness. The researchers said the improved achievement could possibly be related to seminal federal reports on reading from the 2000s and a recent push to up the academic rigor of kindergarten.

And while the gains are good news overall, said the researchers, there is one caveat: The gap between low-achieving 1st grade students and their average-achieving peers has widened when it comes to more-advanced reading skills.

"It seems that what occurred was perhaps with the greater emphasis on basic skills in kindergarten, the low group responded and is coming up at a greater clip than the average child," said Jerome D'Agostino, a professor of educational studies at Ohio State, and a co-author of the study. "But it's not translating into reading connected text," or passages of text.

Basic Skill Gains for Low-Achievers

The study used data from more than 360,000 entering 1st grade students who took a pretest for the Reading Recovery program between 2002 and 2013. The sample came from 44 states and is "as close to a nationally representative sample as you can find," D'Agostino said in an interview.

The researchers found that students in 2013 scored better on all six subtests of reading skills than 1st graders had previously.

Students are "coming in much more prepared to engage with print than they were in 2002," said Emily Rodgers, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State, and a study co-author.

The trajectory was positive for both low-achieving students (those who scored in about the bottom 14 percent nationally and were identified as needing interventions) and for their peers in the average range.

Over that time, the low-achieving students made substantial gains in basic reading skills—larger gains than their peers. "The low-achieving group is catching up," Rodgers said.

But on measures of reading word lists and text passages, low-achieving students made less progress than their peers. "On what we're calling more advanced measures, ... those achievement gaps are widening," said D'Agostino. "The rich are getting richer."

Kindergarten Rigor 

The release of two federal reading reports in the 2000s as well as the recent push to make kindergarten more academically rigorous may have contributed to the overall reading gains, the researchers said. (They emphasized, though, that they could not make causal claims based on their work.)

The landmark 2000 report from the National Reading Panel and the 2008 report from the National Early Literacy Panel emphasized the importance of teaching letter identification, phonemic awareness, and phonics to young students. Those may have had an impact on 1st graders' skills in those areas. 

"It seems reasonable to conclude that reports such as those produced by the NELP and NRP ... led to an increased emphasis on learning important skills in the early grades that are related to reading achievement," the report says.

And recent efforts to up the academic rigor of kindergarten seem to correspond to the reading gains as well. 

"There's concensus that more and more is expected from younger kids," said Rodgers. "We have [1st grade] standards that have been pushed down into kindergarten." As we've written, many experts agree that the Common Core State Standards, which most states are using, ask more of kindergarten readers than did previous state standards. (Whether or not that's a good thing has been debated.)

Do Higher Standards Make Sense?

Rodgers said she was initially interested in conducting this study to see if the higher standards for young students were warranted based on achievement data. Rising standards "do seem justified," according to the report. 

A separate recent study by Daphna Bassok at the University of Virginia found that kindergartners are coming in with stronger academic skills than previously. But that study relied on teachers' assessments of students' skills rather than an outside test.

As for the achievement gaps in advanced reading skills, D'Agostino and Rodgers said it's not clear why those are widening. 

"I wouldn't suggest we stop working on letter identification and phonemic awareness—we need to keep all these things going," said Rodgers. "But let's keep an eye on how that's translating into actually reading text."

Image: First grader Aston Prieto, 6, uses magnetic letters to form words at the Franklin International Language Academy in Glendale, Calif. —Emile Wamsteker for Education Week


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