BILLINGS — As a nationwide trend continues to show declining reading scores for K-12 students, Billings schools are seeing a similar decrease, according to the Billings Education Foundation Executive Director Kelly McCandless.
“In our Title (I) schools, we are only seeing about 43% of kids who can read on grade level,” McCandless said about K-5 students in Billings. "That's compared to our non-Title schools, where you'll see about 56% of kids reading on grade level."
Title I schools receive additional federal funding because they have higher percentages of students who receive free and reduced lunches.
While test scores for both reading and math have been on a decline since the COVID-19 pandemic, McCandless said the trend has been around for a lot longer.
“The decline in reading has been a four-point decline between 2019-2020 to last year. That’s compared to a seven-point decline over the last decade. So, we’ve seen a pretty sharp drop in the last couple of years, but we’ve generally been seeing a trend downward," she said.
Catching students who are struggling to read and helping them sooner, rather than later, is an important step in helping them in school and throughout life, McCandless said.
“By third grade, if you’re not reading on grade level, the ability to catch up just gets so much more difficult. They say that until the end of third grade, kids are learning to read. By the time they’re in fourth grade, they’re reading to learn,” McCandless said.
For the past two years, the Education Foundation has received grants to help schools have more access to audiobooks and e-learning programs.
“If you can’t read the words on your own but you can follow along, sometimes that helps a child tremendously gain access to the material they need,” McCandless said.
Within the school district, they are also taking steps to help those students who may be struggling to read.
"In our lower grade levels, kindergarten through third grade, you'll see teachers who are testing their kids to determine where their skill level is at," McCandless said.
Those tests then determine what group a student is placed in to give them more one-on-one teaching.
McCandless also said there are a few literacy coaches in the district to help students. The foundation also has its Reading Rocks program that runs through the summers.
"I hope that with all of us working toward enhancing literacy in kids, that we can spark that love of what you can explore when you open a book," she said.