A new state-commissioned study of young elementary students found that more than half showed early signs of reading difficulties — more evidence that the state has a serious literacy crisis, despite its reputation for educational excellence.
The report, released Friday, provides a first-of-its kind look at the reading skills of the state’s youngest children, whose reading prowess is not assessed by the state until the first MCAS exam in third grade.
The results are troubling: Nearly 30 percent of students in grades K-3 were at high risk of reading failure, and as many as 20 percent showed signs of having dyslexia, a language processing disorder that must be addressed with specialized reading instruction. Low-income students, those learning English or receiving special education services, Latino students, and Black students were most likely to experience reading struggles, according to researchers with WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that conducted the analysis.
The report suggests schools are not helping most struggling readers catch up: 60 percent of students who began the school year at risk of reading difficulties ended the school year in the same concerning position. But it found that younger students are much more likely to improve with extra help than older students are, a powerful argument for early intervention.
”We see that report as a real call to action,” said state Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler, adding the Healey-Driscoll administration will make early literacy a “high priority in this state.”
Tutwiler said improving access to high-quality curriculum and teacher training — two areas of major weakness for the state — will be key goals for the administration. He said that could require additional funding, but he gave no specifics on how much. A spokeswoman said regulatory changes could be on the table, but did not specify what they may be.
The report’s findings should not come as a surprise.
The extent of the state’s early literacy struggles have been laid bare annually in MCAS results, which, as the Globe’s Great Divide team previously reported, regularly show tens of thousands of students advancing from grade to grade without the reading skills they need to be successful.
The Globe investigation found nearly half of the state’s school districts last school year were using a reading curriculum the state considered “low quality.” A national nonprofit ranked Massachusetts this year in the bottom half of the nation in preparing educators to teach reading.
Massachusetts has not, as other states have, required evidence-based methods of reading instruction. A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education noted the state’s legal structure, which prizes local control, restricts the state from passing curriculum mandates without legislation. The education department is in the midst of requiring teacher preparation programs to improve early literacy instruction, but the transformation is likely to take years.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working in the background to improve reading scores, investing $20 million in federal funding since 2020 into grant programs aimed at bolstering schools’ literacy instruction. But Massachusetts spends comparatively little in state funding — $5.3 million — on early literacy in relation to other states that have put it at the top of their policy agendas.
A spokeswoman said the department, which commissioned the report, will prioritize early literacy while reviewing and assessing schools; further details are being hammered out, she said.
The WestEd findings are based on screening results from 2020-21 and 2021-22, and may have been influenced by pandemic learning conditions, including remote schooling.
The sample of students, which came from 35,000 students in 43 districts, included a slightly greater proportion of English learners and low-income students than the state as a whole. But the results, which represent about 10 percent of the state’s K-3 population, offer a window into the breadth of Massachusetts’s literacy problem. The assessments tested numerous reading skills, including identifying letters and letter sounds and recognizing common words.
The new data have important policy implications — though they have been clear to education experts for years.
For example, researchers found that students able to shed their at-risk label by midyear had a greater chance of ending the year in a good position. Focusing on extra instruction early in the year can help in the long term, the report said.
And kindergartners and first graders showed a greater ability to improve by the end of the year than older children, underscoring the importance of focusing on the state’s youngest students.
Those findings support other research showing it’s more effective to intervene earlier on, said Katherine Tarca, director of literacy and humanities for the state. Tarca said the report’s findings also suggest the state should provide extra support to schools serving large populations of low-income children, children of color, and English learners.
Brent Conway, assistant superintendent of the Pentucket Regional School District, which participated in the report, said schools can no longer take a “wait and see” approach with students who need reading help.
“It’s not that we can’t help kids after third grade. We can,” Conway said. “It’s just going to take a lot more, and the kids are going to miss something else in order to get [extra help], and that has other consequences.”
Because the MCAS exam doesn’t begin until the end of the third grade, policy makers for years have largely overlooked the struggles of the state’s youngest students. Though most schools have been screening early elementary students for reading difficulties, many used faulty tests that did not provide reliable or specific information. It wasn’t until this school year that the state began requiring all districts in the state to screen K-3 students at least twice per year using a state-approved assessment. That rule was an outgrowth of 2018 legislation meant to improve services for students with dyslexia.
State education board member Michael Moriarty said the results will help the education department provide more targeted help to local districts.
The potential for a greater financial investment from the state left Moriarty “elated.”
“The Healey-Driscoll administration will be extremely successful if they target resources to change the outcomes we’ve been suffering from for so long,” he said.
Early literacy, Tutwiler said, is “a skill set that is foundational.”