Rural Kansas schools see decline in early learning reading levels

COLUMBUS, Ks.–Kansas schools are among many nationwide trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic on learning. Kelly Walters, reading specialist for the Columbus Unified School District has seen the effect’s on young children’s learning first-hand.

“They would be quarantined or teachers were quarantined. So they didn’t get the normal school year last year. And any sort of reading that we do, you have to have the foundational skills. So when those kids, missed almost half of their kindergarten or first-grade year, they really missed a lot of the foundational skills that you have to have to be a successful reader,” Walters said. 

A recent study by the reading roadmap non-profit shows rural Kansas school districts, like Columbus, experienced the greatest decline in early reading levels between 2019 and 2021, compared to other Kansas school districts

Now the District’s superintendent, Brian Smith, says they’re trying to catch up, which can be challenging when some students need more help than others.

“Some students came back and they were in pretty good shape and on course and others came back. And that creates an issue to try to catch some for others or where they needed to be. So we’ve introduced afterschool programs and summer school programs to help that because not everyone maybe needs that,” Smith said. 

The district says they plan to use what they’ve learned through the pandemic to change and improve how kids are taught in the future.

“We want to really work and focus on all of those kids that are struggling because we know that for them to be successful adults, they have to be able to be a successful reader,” said Walters. 

We also reached out to the Pittsburg School District who sent us a statement that reads:

“We would agree that we saw increased numbers of students scoring in the lowest tier of the state assessment during the spring of 2021 assessments.  There is certainly no doubt that the challenges of COVID over the past two years have impacted student learning, especially those students with additional challenges such as lower socioeconomic status and those who speak English as a second language.  Making comparisons and/or judgments based upon state assessment scores which are given only once annually and do not compare cohort groups of students most likely does not tell the whole story.

We prefer to utilize our reading program assessment data (FastBridge) which provides a picture of a student’s progress at least three times during the school year.  We can then make comparisons between the beginning of the year and end of year assessments with the same cohort of students to make judgments on our effectiveness and progress.  For instance, this same group of students (3rd graders in 2020-21) in USD, increased 4% in the number of students achieving grade-level reading achievement from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.  Similarly, this same group of students showed a 6% decrease in the number of students reading at least one grade level behind their peers.”
Statement from Dr. Brad Hanson, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, USD 250