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Supporting beginning readers: New report looks at reading achievement gaps and trends in kindergarten and grade 1 for two districts

New report examines reading achievement gaps and trends

By Joni Wackwitz
February 9, 2021

The reading skills that students develop early on form the foundation for later academic success. Not all students have the same early learning opportunities and life experiences, however; and different groups of students may start school with different levels of reading ability.

A new report from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest examines gaps and trends in reading achievement across kindergarten and grade 1 for two Illinois school districts. The Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance, which REL Midwest facilitates, conducted the study. The findings indicate that gaps in reading achievement not only exist across some student groups but widen over time. The findings and their implications can guide district administrators and educators in supporting beginning readers.

>> Read and download the full report and related infographics for District U–46 and District 186.

Analyzing reading outcomes in two Illinois districts

The study focused on Elgin Area Schools (District U–46) and Springfield Public Schools (District 186). District U–46, northwest of Chicago, is the second largest district in Illinois and serves some 40,000 students, including large populations of Hispanic students and English learner students. District 186, in west-central Illinois, serves 14,000 primarily Black and White students in the state’s capital and surrounding areas.

Each district uses a different reading assessment to assess reading:

  • District U–46 uses the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, a formative reading assessment administered by teachers (Fountas & Pinnell, 2007).
  • District 186 uses the Measures of Academic Progress for Primary Grades assessment, which is adaptive and appropriate for universal screening and for measuring the growth of students’ reading scores (Northwest Evaluation Association, 2009).

Drawing on assessment data and student records, the study documented reading achievement for two different kindergarten cohorts (2016/17 for District U–46 and 2017/18 for District 186) through the end of grade 1. In addition, the study identified disparities in reading achievement among student groups defined by race/ethnicity, gender, English learner status, special education participation, and family income (as indicated by eligibility for the national school lunch program).

What did the study find?

Reading achievement increased across kindergarten and grade 1. In District U–46, more than half (57 percent) of students met the district’s reading proficiency milestone in the spring of grade 1. In District 186, reading achievement increased across kindergarten and grade 1 at rates similar to the reading assessment’s national norms by the end of grade 1. (National norms allow for the comparison of students’ scores to a national sample of students who took the test in a prior year.)

Gaps in reading achievement existed across groups of students, as indicated by the following:

  • In both districts, Asian and White students had higher reading achievement than Black and Hispanic students. In District U–46, Asian students had the highest reading achievement in spring of grade 1, followed by White, Hispanic, and Black students. In District 186, gaps in reading scores between Asian and Black students, Asian and Hispanic students, and White and Black students widened between fall of kindergarten and the end of grade 1.
  • In both districts, students not eligible for the national school lunch program had higher reading achievement than students with this eligibility. In District U–46, about 65 percent of students not eligible for the national school lunch program met the proficiency milestone by the end of grade 1 compared with 52 percent of students eligible for the program. In District 186, gaps in reading scores between these two student groups widened between fall of kindergarten and spring of grade 1.
  • In both districts, students not in special education had higher reading achievement than students in special education. In District U–46, 60 percent of students not in special education met the spring of grade 1 reading proficiency milestone by the end of grade 1 compared with 28 percent of students in special education. In District 186, gaps in reading scores between these two student groups widened between fall of kindergarten and spring of grade 1.
  • In District U–46, non-English learner students had higher reading achievement than English learner students. Approximately 61 percent of the district’s non-English learner students met the proficiency milestone in the spring of grade 1 compared with about half (53 percent) of English learner students.
  • In District 186, female students started kindergarten and ended grade 1 with slightly higher reading achievement than male students

The report includes several study limitations that should be considered when interpreting the findings. See the report for more information.

What can we take away from the findings?

District administrators, policymakers, and educators can use the study findings and their implications in the following ways:

  • To motivate conversations about the root causes of inequities and how to resolve them. The study did not examine root causes of gaps in reading achievement or why gaps widened over time. Districts may want to conduct follow-up research to deepen their understanding of what drives these gaps and how best to address them. In addition, districts and policymakers may want to consider increased funding for assessments and interventions prior to or at the start of kindergarten to identify students in need of language and literacy support to remedy reading achievement gaps before they develop and widen.
  • To guide decisions about the allocation of opportunities and resources. Districts and policymakers may want to increase resources—such as professional development, literacy coaches, and books—for schools that serve larger concentrations of Black or Hispanic students, students eligible for the national school lunch program, students in special education, or English learner students to achieve more equitable outcomes across these groups. However, to address gaps in reading achievement within schools, educators should use scores on reading assessments rather than demographic groups as the basis for identifying students in need of reading interventions.

Related resources

To learn more about the work of the Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance to improve early literacy in Illinois and the Midwest, browse the following resources:

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Author information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest

jwackwitz@air.org

Topics

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (36)

Data Use (26)

Discipline (3)

Early Childhood (27)

Educator Effectiveness (32)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (7)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (23)

Teacher Workforce (12)

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