An analysis of standardized test scores in the District of Columbia found that overall 3rd grade reading proficiency rates stayed stagnant between 2007 and 2014—but declined for economically disadvantaged and black students.
Many studies have found that children who read below grade level by 3rd grade continue to struggle in school long afterwards. A number of states have put 3rd grade reading retention laws into place for this reason. (D.C. does not have one.)
The new analysis by DC Action for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group, looks at school-level results on the district’s standardized test, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC CAS. (In 2015, the district switched over to the PARCC common-core-aligned test). The results were reported on a four-tiered scale—Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced—and the analysis uses a weighted proficiency formula to account for changes in proficiency levels.
It showed that 3rd grade reading proficiency did not improve between 2007 and 2014. And over the same period, the analysis showed “a statistically significant downward trend in reading proficiency for economically disadvantaged 3rd grade students.” About two-thirds of students in the district receive free or reduced price lunch, which is often used as a proxy measure for poverty.
Economically disadvantaged students who attended schools with low concentrations of economically disadvantaged students did better than those at high-poverty schools.
The study indicated there are large discrepancies by race as well. The reading proficiency rates of black 3rd grade students declined between 2007 and 2014, while for white students, the proficiency rates increased. “These results indicate that the racial literacy gap between black and white 3rd graders in the district may have actually increased over the last eight years,” the policy brief says. For Hispanic students, proficiency rates showed a downward trend, though not a statistically significant one.
Just looking at 2014, 94 percent of white 3rd grade students tested proficient or above in reading, while just 35 percent of black 3rd graders and 36 percent of Hispanic 3rd graders did the same.
The study also compared students in D.C. public schools to those in charter schools. It found “a statistically significant downward trend in reading proficiency for DCPS students but no trend for charter students.” And economically disadvantaged students in charter schools tended to perform better than those in regular public schools.
“We must reexamine both how we allocate resources, from birth through graduation, to ensure we prioritize the evidenced-based programs that most benefit the District’s students, and that social programs that deal with the effects of poverty are integrated with the city’s schools,” the DC Action for Children policy brief states.
D.C. schools have undergone a number of reforms in recent years, including the rollout of a new teacher evaluation system in 2009 that led to both dismissals and pay changes (and has since undergone some modifications).
Notably, the district has shown recent improvement in reading achievement according to another measure. Between 2011 and 2015, 4th graders in the district showed a statistically significant increase in reading scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. However, when compared to states, D.C. continues to perform below the national average in reading.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.