Three school years after classrooms shut their doors in March 2020 following the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Georgia students remain behind in phonics compared to kids in other states, said Woody Paik, executive vice president at education company Curriculum Associates, but the data also shows some good news.

“If I look across all grades for the spring of ‘23, Georgia’s a little bit behind every grade relative to national,” he said, pointing to data from children from kindergarten through 8th grade.

Curriculum Associates sells lessons, assessments and classroom tools, including the popular i-Ready software, which is used by more than 11 million students nationwide. Paik spoke at the Georgia Board of Education’s retreat in Young Harris, Georgia last week.

Across the country, Curriculum Associates’ data shows academic recovery is sluggish in both reading and math. The data shows that while elementary school students in majority Black schools saw the biggest increases in reading and math scores between 2022 and 2023, majority Black and Latino schools remained significantly below majority white schools.

Similarly, the percentage of students on grade level dropped nationwide among all levels of median income after the pandemic, but the effect was more pronounced in districts with lower median incomes.

“If I look at the schools with median income $50,000 to $75,000 or $75-plus, the historic difference was 8%, meaning the wealthier neighborhoods had about 8% more kids on grade level, roughly,” Paik said. “That historic difference of 8% is now 12%, so the inequities that exist just got wired.”

And seemingly paradoxically, students who were not yet in kindergarten when the pandemic began still display lower reading ability than students in those grades before the pandemic, according to Curriculum Associates’ data.

For example, 68% of first-graders read on grade level in 2019, which fell to 58% by 2022 and rose to 61% in spring 2023.

“These are kids whose lives were disrupted by family situations, maybe day care was closed, maybe pre-K was closed, whatever it may be,” Paik said. “But the point is, these kids are walking into the buildings repeatedly farther behind than they were before, and they were not directly, but rather indirectly impacted by school closure, so it’s a tough situation.”

Still, Paik said there’s reason for optimism in Georgia, where the numbers suggest some students in Georgia are catching up quicker than children in other states.

“In first grade, national went from 59 to 65, or they went up six points. Georgia went up 53 to 62. They went up nine points,” he said. “If you look at third grade, national went up from 69 to 72, so three points, Georgia went up 61 to 67, or six points. So I don’t exactly know what’s in the water here.”

State education leaders have already announced plans aimed at further closing learning gaps, including new tutoring resources through AmeriCorps and Georgia Virtual Learning, as well as the formation of a 30-member Georgia Council on Literacy.

The board is also planning to implement assessment changes in line with this year’s Georgia Early Literacy Act, which would require schools to adopt tests to screen for K-3 students having trouble with reading and plans to get them back on track. The tests would occur three times per year, with the first taking place within 30 days of the start of the school year, and the tests will also be designed to identify characteristics of dyslexia.

In its September meeting, the state Board of Education took up a rules change that included the new screeners, but did not vote on the measure after board member Helen Odom Rice said she had questions about the changes. Rice said the proposed rule as written may not have been aligned with the bill’s requirements for disclosure of screener results to parents and the board.

“There’s a lot, and it’s critical that we get this right, especially with the screening and testing, and especially the alignment, it’s in law. And I don’t know if everybody’s had a chance to really read it and go through it.”

The board is scheduled to meet next on Nov. 1 and 2. According to the Early Literacy Act’s timeline, they have until Jan. 1 to establish procedures for education service providers to submit screeners for consideration and until July 1, 2024, to approve a list of screeners. Schools will begin implementing the screeners and intervention plans next August.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.