Trends in early literacy

The transition from kindergarten to first grade (Year 1 to Year 2 in the UK) is considered to be a critical period for children’s academic and social development. Expectation about children’s early literacy learning has risen over time, but has their achievement – and how?

Jerome V D’Agostino and Emily Rodgers analysed achievement data obtained from a US database for Reading Recovery (a literacy intervention for first grade pupils) for more than 364,000 children entering first grade in the same schools. From this data they created a literacy profile for pupils at entry to the first grade over a 12-year period, beginning in the 2002–03 school year.

Their research, published in Educational Researcher, found that overall, reading for all pupils in the first grade improved measurably between 2002 and 2013. Literacy scores on entry increased over time. The effect size change in achievement gaps narrowed (-0.10) on basic skills like letter identification, but widened on advanced skills like text reading level (+0.08) over 12 years.

Source: Literacy achievement trends at entry to first grade (March 2017), Educational Researcher, Vol 46, Issue 2.

Three-year achievement gap between poor pupils and their better-off peers

Research published by the Sutton Trust shows that for schools in the UK, the achievement gap in maths, science and reading between the top-performing pupils from low and high socio-economic backgrounds is around two years and eight months.

Global Gaps by Dr John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education analyses the 2015 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests to assess how well the top 10% of pupils in the UK’s schools are doing. In England, the highest-achieving pupils score above the median score for OECD countries in maths, science and reading. However, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, high-achieving pupils perform, on average, below the OECD median scores.

For girls in England, the achievement gap in science and reading is even greater. High-achieving girls from low socio-economic backgrounds are around three years behind their more advantaged, high-achieving peers. This is around eight months greater than the equivalent gap for boys for science, and nine months greater for reading. There is no significant gender difference in maths, with an achievement gap of around two years and nine months for both girls and boys.

Source: Global Gaps: Comparing socio-economic gaps in the performance of highly able UK pupils internationally (February 2017), The Sutton Trust

Reducing achievement gaps in academic writing

A study published in Journal of Educational Psychology reports on two years of findings from a randomised controlled trial of the Pathway Project, an intervention designed to reduce achievement gaps in academic writing for pupils who are Latino or have English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Ninety-five teachers from 16 secondary schools in the Anaheim Union High School District – a large, diverse, low-socioeconomic status, urban district with over 33,000 pupils (60% Latino and 66% EAL) – were randomly assigned to the treatment (Pathway) or control condition. Teachers in the Pathway group took part in a 46-hour professional development programme where they were trained to help improve pupils’ interpretative reading and text-based analytical writing using a cognitive strategies approach.

Findings from the study show promising results in both years of the intervention that appear to close the achievement gap in writing outcomes for Latino pupils and EALs in grades 7 to 12 (Years 8-13). In the first year of the trial, Pathway pupils gained 0.99 points more for an on-demand academic writing assessment than control pupils, which was highly statistically significant. Significant effects were attained for all grade levels except 12th grade (Year 13). The second year also showed a large positive, significant effect of the intervention on the full sample. Pre- and post-test scores for the academic writing assessment showed an effect size of +0.48 in the first year and +0.60 in the second year.

Programme effects were positive and significant for all the language groups, with the very largest occurring for EALs. This suggests that the Pathway Project may be particularly beneficial for pupils still in the process of learning English. In addition, pupils in the Pathway group had higher odds than pupils in the control group of passing the California Higher School Exit Exam in both years.

Source: Reducing achievement gaps in academic writing for Latinos and English learners in Grades 7–12 (January 2017), Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 109(1), 1-21.

Science achievement gaps start early and persist

A study published in Educational Researcher looks at the profile of science achievement gaps to the age of 14.

The researchers used data from the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K), which followed 7,757 children from kindergarten (Year 1) to eighth grade (Year 9). In kindergarten, the children completed a general knowledge test covering the physical, biological, and social sciences. In the following years, there were further assessments of science, reading, and mathematics achievement, as well as approaches to learning and parenting quality.

Large gaps in science general knowledge were already evident when children entered kindergarten. These gaps continued into first grade (Year 2), third grade (Year 4), and ultimately eighth grade. Between third and eighth grade, lower reading and mathematics achievement was also predictive of the persistence of these science achievement gaps.

The authors argue that interventions may need to be implemented very early in children’s development to counteract these early general knowledge gaps. Improving reading and mathematics achievement and behavioural self-regulation, and decreasing school racial segregation may also contribute to reducing the science achievement gaps.

Source: Science Achievement Gaps Begin Very Early, Persist, and Are Largely Explained by Modifiable Factors (2016), Educational Researcher.

Promising results for Numicon

A new report from the National College for Teaching and Leadership describes an experiment to evaluate seven education interventions simultaneously, and also to explore the potential of collaborative practice in the delivery of large-scale randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

The interventions were selected for their potential to close the achievement gap for pupils with below average literacy and numeracy achievement. After 27 months of delivery, the majority of results were non-significant, with the exception of Numicon Intervention Programme (NIP) which showed a positive effect on maths achievement and progress (particularly for pupils eligible for free school meals).

As part of Closing the gap: test and learn, teachers were trained in research methods and 50 teacher-led experimental studies (including RCTs designed and conducted by schools) were grant funded as part of 11 separate research projects. Oxford University evaluated the experiment and concluded that a “school-led system” could develop research capacity through a scheme such as this.

Source: Closing the Gap: Test and Learn – Research Report Winter (2016), National College for Teaching & Leadership.

Mind the gap

A new research report published by the Department for Education explores success and good practice in supporting the achievement of disadvantaged pupils, and concludes that schools have meaningful scope to make a difference.

In England, the performance gap between pupils from more- and less-advantaged backgrounds is one of the largest among OECD countries. This research used school-level data, surveys, and interviews to identify schools that have successfully narrowed the gap, common features across these schools, and what lessons can be learned from success stories.

The authors found that between one- and two-thirds of the variance between schools in terms of disadvantaged pupils’ achievement can be explained by school-level characteristics, suggesting that intake and circumstance are influential but do not totally determine outcomes.

  • Promote an ethos of achievement for all pupils, rather than stereotyping disadvantaged pupils as a group with less potential to succeed.
  • Have an individualised approach to addressing barriers to learning and emotional support at an early stage, rather than providing access to generic support and focusing on pupils nearing the end of key stages.
  • Focus on high-quality teaching first rather than add-on strategies and activities outside school hours.
  • Focus on outcomes for individual pupils rather than on providing strategies.
  • Deploy the best staff to support disadvantaged pupils; develop skills and roles of teachers and Teaching Assistants rather than using additional staff who do not know the pupils well.
  • Make decisions based on data and respond to evidence using frequent, rather than one-off, assessment and decision points.
  • Have clear, responsive leadership: setting ever-higher aspirations and devolving responsibility for raising achievement to all staff, rather than accepting low aspirations and variable performance.

The report also has an accompanying briefing for school leaders which summarises the findings, identifies school risk factors and how schools can address them, and provides a list of suggested next steps.

Source: Supporting the Attainment of Disadvantaged Pupils: Articulating Success and Good Practice: Research Report (2015), Department for Education.