Reading test scores in Buffalo public schools dropped by nearly a third during the pandemic, with the youngest students being the hardest hit.
Two years later, there’s been significant, but not complete recovery. However, pupils who were in kindergarten and first grade when the district turned to virtual instruction are still struggling to make up for the learning that was lost, according to testing data.
“It was catastrophic. It was horrible,” Nicole Herkey, a reading specialist at Southside Elementary, said of the pandemic’s effect on students’ reading ability.
“It was horrible on so many levels that people who were not in the classroom do not realize.”
The testing data on pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade paint a stark image of how impactful the COVID-19 pandemic was to Buffalo’s youngest learners.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic struck, 44.3 percent of pupils were reading at or above benchmark — targeted, grade-appropriate reading levels.
By the spring of 2021, that number had dropped to 30 percent.
That number climbed to 40 percent in testing conducted last spring.
The numbers aren’t based on state standardized tests, but rather a test called DIBELS, which is administered three times a school year to monitor a child’s ability to read. Many other school districts use DIBELS.
“I believe that the data is showing that certainly there is work that is happening,” Superintendent Tonja Williams said. “That’s huge. But we still have a long ways to go.”
Experts and educators are particularly concerned with students who started school just before or during the pandemic.
“If you can’t read, you can’t do anything else,” Herkey said. “Unless and until we get them caught up, they’re always going to be behind.”
Districtwide, the kindergarten class of 2021’s DIBELS scores have risen from 21.8 percent to 38 percent of students reading at or above benchmark in the spring of 2023. This fall, the beginning of the year assessment showed those students held their ground: 37 percent are reading at or above benchmark.
The district’s kindergarten class of 2020 — which received all of their first grade year of instruction virtually — has stagnated. As first graders, 31.9 percent of those students read at or above benchmark. Over the past two years, as second and third graders, their percentage has remained around 35.
Herkey has been a reading specialist in the district for nearly two decades. For the past several years, she has aided the students of Southside Elementary in kindergarten through fifth grade. Herkey said she has seen firsthand how much students have been affected.
The kindergarten class of 2021 at Southside was hit hardest, she said. Only five of the 71 students — 7 percent — were reading at benchmark levels by the end of the year. Those students have improved over the past two years, with 33.7 percent reading at or above benchmark.
Pupils at some other schools are not showing sufficient progress, however.
For example, at D’Youville Porter Campus and Marva J. Daniel Futures Prep, not a single kindergarten student finished the 2020-21 school year at benchmark. Today, fewer than one in five scored at or above benchmark as of the beginning of this school year.
Because schools relied on virtual instruction during the pandemic, the youngest students were tasked with learning beginning reading skills at home through the screen of a tablet or computer — something literacy experts deem nearly impossible.
Herkey acknowledged the rebound of reading ability throughout the district since then, which she attributes to the increase of literacy specialists in the schools. But district officials aren’t doing enough for students that were hit the hardest, she said.
“If they were, then they would have multiple literacy specialists at the buildings, and specifically working with those groups of students more than the 30 to 40 minutes that we have them,” she said.
The reading test
The DIBELS assessment, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, is administered three times a year to elementary pupils throughout the district. It allows teachers to track the ability and progress of students, and to inform future instruction.
The assessment has been around for decades and is used in school districts throughout the country.
Students are tested on multiple categories of reading, including phonemic awareness and decoding. The assessment gives educators a truer sense of a child’s ability to read than the state’s standardized testing, according to Buffalo Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Anne Botticelli.
“They’re actually very different,” Botticelli said. “The state assessment is focused on mainly comprehension and then you’re writing … DIBELS is focused primarily on the skills that lead to that ability to read and write and comprehend the text.”
DIBELS assessments are administered to students mainly in kindergarten through the fifth grade, compared to state standardized tests, which don’t begin until the third grade.
“DIBELS is telling us, ‘Did you learn how to read,’” Botticelli said. “It’s a true indication of whether kids are on track.”
This year, Buffalo’s school board and the Council of Great City Schools decided to use DIBELS results instead of state standardized assessments to review the quality of the superintendent’s work with the district.
A student’s score is graded at one of four results: well below benchmark, below benchmark, benchmark, or above benchmark.
“[Students] have to meet a higher target to be considered proficient,” Botticelli said. “But the level of difficulty remains the same throughout the year on each test.”
While students at some schools throughout Buffalo are struggling, there are pockets of achievement. Nearly 4 out of 5 kindergarten through fourth grade students at Frederick Law Olmsted read at or above benchmark levels in the spring of 2023.
At Arthur O. Eve school 61, at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Grider Street, more than half of the students reached benchmark reading levels this spring — the school’s highest mark in seven years.
Impacts still felt
Students in Buffalo are back in the classroom. But the effects of the pandemic still linger, and literacy experts and education advocates are concerned.
“If you don’t have those very basic skills by first, second, and third grade, it’s going to be a very difficult road,” said Anne Ryan, executive director of Read to Succeed Buffalo.
“If kids don’t have those foundational skills of how to decode language … that does not bode well for a very literate future.”
The most recent scores, in the fall of 2023, reflect the new phonics-based reading program the district is using.
The improvement in reading scores coincides with district programs funded by $290 million in federal pandemic relief funds.
This year, the district is using the remainder of that money to hire 263 staff and fund a variety of programs. The remainder of the money must be spent by October 2024 and district officials warn of a “financial cliff” that will result in the loss of some staff and programs.
Williams noted the district has directed resources to help students most affected by learning loss, such as extended instruction time and afterschool programs.
“We know that there are some students who are in the pipeline that do have some gaps,” she said.
“We’re really focused on our early grade levels and helping children learn to read so that then the trajectory changes,” the superintendent said. “We believe if we get it right earlier on, then certainly it’s only going to get better.”
While students who started school just before or during the pandemic are struggling to reach reading benchmark levels, the kindergarten class of 2022 is mimicking reading levels of the years before the pandemic.
Last spring, as first graders, 45.6 percent of those students read at or above benchmark — a rate higher than any first grade class in the previous seven years.
Optimism is on the rise, not only for the district’s top brass, but among some teachers and literacy experts, too.
“When children feel like, you know, they’re being successful academically and they can read, I believe that lots of things begin to change,” Williams said. “So we’re going to stay the course with this, and we’re going to keep getting better and better.”