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More Grade 1 students at the Toronto District School Board did not meet reading expectations in the last academic year compared with a decade ago, highlighting how pandemic-related disruptions affected some of the youngest learners.

The TDSB data, presented to trustees on Wednesday, showed that 30 per cent of Grade 1 students were not meeting reading benchmarks at the end of June. That compares with about 24 per cent of students at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

The situation was worse among students from low-income households. Roughly 40 per cent of those students did not meet reading expectations last year, compared with 27 per cent a decade earlier.

Teachers measured many different aspects of reading, including fluency, which involves accuracy and using proper expression when reading aloud.

In the early years of schooling, children learn the fundamentals of how to read. An important milestone happens around Grade 3, when many students can read on their own for learning and pleasure.

The TDSB is an outlier because it is one of the only boards to share data on how students have fared over the past few years. Overall, the effects of COVID-19 disruptions in Canada are unclear because, unlike in other countries, the data is piecemeal.

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A University of Alberta study found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in the Edmonton area performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks by the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Similarly, Grade 6 test results from Nova Scotia in the last academic year showed fewer students met expectations in reading, writing and math compared with prepandemic assessments.

Parents, educators and researchers have expressed concern about the achievement gaps in learning, as well as the social and emotional struggles of students, especially those from marginalized communities.

David Cameron, a senior manager in research and development at the TDSB, said the data presented a “real worry.” This group of students started kindergarten at the height of the pandemic, and many children had a difficult time learning online.

Some parents, he said, did not enroll their children in kindergarten, which is optional.

However, Mr. Cameron described this cohort as a group of “dynamic learners,” which means they are better able to absorb new material and catchup as they receive supports, including tutoring.

“The ability to reverse that is there for us,” Mr. Cameron said about the trend. “We just have to make sure that we’re on it.”

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a researcher and associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the TDSB data is concerning but not surprising. International studies have shown that students have fallen behind academically during the pandemic.

“Younger students have been particularly hard hit, and students struggling with poverty not only faced more illness and uncertainty but also, relatedly, far worse outcomes academically – a perfect storm,” she said.

Prof. Gallagher-Mackay has called on governments and school boards to release more data on how students have fared, so that resources can be better directed to address concerns.

In Ontario, the government has directed funds toward tutoring as part of its plan to help students after more than two years of disruptions.

“Are our plans to catch up focused on equity?” Prof. Gallagher-Mackay asked. “There are no provincial requirements to make sure those who fell furthest behind get more help, nor requirements for evidence-based interventions.”

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