TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis spent much of the pandemic championing a clear philosophy on education: In-person learning means better learning.
He was so convinced of this idea that he pushed a state rule preventing the “unnecessary” removal of kids from in-person learning amid the pandemic to get children back into classrooms.
But even as new nationwide research backs up Florida’s decision to steer students back to in-person schooling, the earliest test results from 2021-22 show a much more nuanced situation in the state’s public schools. Despite the widespread return to face-to-face classes in Florida, one out of every four third graders scored the lowest mark possible on their state language arts assessments this year — marking the highest percentage since the test was introduced in 2015.
Education officials say the new scores are a result of students having their earliest years rocked by coronavirus disruptions during a critical age for learning, something that Florida schools and teachers are attempting to counteract. It’s a clear indication that the Covid-19 pandemic is having lingering effects on the reading development of some of the youngest students in the state even as the vast majority of students returned to in-person learning.
“It’s not ending. It’s not like next year will suddenly be better,” Holly Lane, director of the University of Florida Literacy Initiative, said in an interview. “The effects, I think, are going to be seen for several years more.”
DeSantis has built a national reputation on fighting — and in some cases outlawing — Covid-related restrictions, including vaccine passports and mandates. At the same time, the governor often lauds Florida’s in-person schooling as an example of how schools across the country should have operated under the pandemic. Teaching kids in person leads to better outcomes, he has said, including improving learning loss that many school districts experienced during the pandemic.
“These lockdown states, the unions locked these kids out of school — they didn’t want them in class,” DeSantis said as recently as last week during a budget-signing ceremony in The Villages. “And the result has been huge learning losses, unprecedented learning losses.”
“That’s going to have a huge impact — negative in these other states, and we will have mitigated a lot of the damage here in Florida. And you can’t put a price tag on that.”
Data released recently, however, shows that Florida’s third graders also suffered academically during the past few years, though not as acutely as some states where kids were kept out of school.
Third grade reading is often seen as a significant barometer for reading comprehension. And in Florida, state exams on the subject typically determine whether students can advance to the next grade.
By law, third graders here must score at least a “level 2” on their reading tests or else run the risk of repeating the grade unless they can otherwise prove their literacy skills and earn an exemption. The state created workarounds to this rule during the pandemic to give schools different means to gauge student performance outside of the exams.
Based on the latest data, 25 percent of Florida’s third graders scored a “level 1” on the exam compared to 23 percent last year and 20 percent in 2018-19 before the pandemic. Broken down further, that means some 52,571 students hit the lowest mark in 2021-22 versus 43,394 students in 2018-19. State tests were called off for the 2019-2020 school year due to Covid-19.
Further, 53 percent of Florida’s third graders scored a “level 3” on the 2021-22 exams, the mark that the state considers student’s reading skills to be “satisfactory.” This represents a decline of only 1 percentage point from last year but is some 5 points lower than the state’s pre-pandemic high in 2018-19. And 6 percent of students scored the highest level possible on the test, the same rate as last year.
For its part, the Florida Department of Education acknowledges that early literacy rates are a significant issue to contend with next school year and beyond.
Third graders who took the state reading exams this year likely faced a “major disruption” in schooling starting in first grade while they are attempting to learn “the building blocks of language” — things like growing vocabulary and working on phonics that can be more difficult to master remotely, according to Jacob Oliva, chancellor of public schools at FLDOE.
“If someone’s not teaching those to you in a structured environment that’s scaffolded, built out and progresses over time, you may have some holes there,” Oliva, a former elementary teacher and principal, said in an interview. “That’s something schools recognize, and it’s something schools know can be filled.”
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Reading development among young students requires active instruction by educators, which can be hindered by doing virtual school or even a teacher wearing a mask that effects pronunciation, according to Lane, whose research at the University of Florida focuses on literacy intervention and prevention of reading difficulties through effective early literacy instruction and teacher education.
Although the slight downturn in reading could seem to put a damper on DeSantis’ perceived victory, recent research suggests that other states may see wider achievement gaps compared to Florida, largely because schools in the Sunshine State reopened en masse last fall at the request of the Republican governor.
In one May study from Harvard, researchers concluded that the move to remote or hybrid instruction had “profound consequences for student achievement.” Further, learning growth was lower for all subgroups and especially for students attending high-poverty schools, the researchers wrote.
Areas that held in-person classes still had “modest losses in achievement” yet there was “no widening of gaps between high and low-poverty schools in math and less widening in reading,” according to the report.
For Florida, 43 percent of third graders classified as “economically disadvantaged” hit the “satisfactory” score this year, a drop of 1 percentage point compared to 2020-21 but 5 points worse than 2018-19, according to the state data. And 31 percent of these students scored the lowest mark, an increase of 1 percentage point from last year, which is 6 points worse than the rate before the pandemic.
“Depending on whether they remained remote during 2020-21, some school agencies have much more work to do now than others,” the Harvard researchers wrote in the study, which encompassed 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools across 49 states. “If the achievement losses become permanent, there will be major implications for future earnings, racial equity, and income inequality, especially in states where remote instruction was common.”
State education officials claim that the Harvard report “further validates that Florida’s educational leadership and commitment to fighting for educators, families, and students was successful.”
DeSantis, too, has used its conclusions as evidence of the state made the right call in pushing to keep schools open for students.
“Even Harvard admitted, [in] Florida, we’ve seen no widening of any achievement gaps between rich, poor, Black, white, because we actually had kids in school,” DeSantis said last week.
To that end, Florida’s third grade reading scores show that the performance gap between white, Black and Hispanic students who scored “satisfactory” shrank slightly since the pandemic, largely because of a greater decline among white students.
Some 65 percent of white students hit that mark in 2021-22 compared to 71 percent in 2018-19; for Hispanic students, the rate dropped from 54 percent to 49 percent over that span and from 40 percent to 37 percent among Black students.
Yet the gap between students scoring the lowest level on the exams also widened slightly. Some 37 percent of Black students posted “inadequate” scores this year — an increase of 7 percentage points from 2018-19. That rate rose by 4 percentage points for white students and 5 percent among Hispanic students during the same stretch.
The Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on early literacy were also exacerbated by the teacher shortage facing Florida and states elsewhere, Lane said. There were some 4,359 advertised teacher vacancies in January 2022 compared to 2,368 at the same point last year, according to data from the Florida Education Association.
Florida lawmakers in 2022 agreed to spend an additional $250 million on teacher salaries next year, throwing a total of $800 million toward improving their pay. The 2022-23 budget also includes $170 million for local reading initiatives, a $40 million increase over current year spending.
But even with the more funding and ideas like a $200 million statewide program to send books to students, Lane said there’s more work to be done to improve early literacy, such as helping teachers learn how to target linguistics.
“I certainly think the right kinds of efforts are being made,” Lane said. “I don’t know if it will be enough to overcome just the size of the problem.”