Equity & Diversity

Analysis Ties 4th Grade Reading Failure to Poverty

By Debra Viadero — May 18, 2010 4 min read
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Eighty-five percent of poor 4th graders in predominantly low-income schools are failing to reach “proficient” levels in reading on federal tests, according to a new study by a national foundation that is gearing up to lead a 10-year effort to raise 3rd graders’ reading proficiency.

“The evidence is clear that those students who do not read well have a very tough time succeeding in school and graduating from high schools and going on to successful careers and lives,” Ralph R. Smith, the executive vice president of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in an interview. “The Casey Foundation is putting a stake in the ground on grade-level reading by the end of the 3rd grade.”

The report, which is due to be released this morning, lays out the statistical case for the foundation’s soon-to-be-announced, 10-year initiative to ensure that more children become proficient readers by the time they leave 3rd grade.

As part of the new campaign, the report says, the foundation plans to join with other philanthropies to finance reading-improvement efforts in a dozen states representing different geographic regions in the country. But Mr. Smith said details of that new venture will not be available for another two months.

The report, “EARLY WARNING!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” is the 21st in a series of statistics-laden Kids Count special reports by the foundation. While some of the foundation’s previous studies have emphasized its “two-generation” approach to improving the well-being of disadvantaged young children and their parents, the new report shifts the focus to getting children on the path to reading proficiency from birth through 3rd grade.

Context Matters

Nationwide, the report notes that 68 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored below proficient levels on 2009 reading tests administered through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated testing program. But on a state-by-state basis, the percentages ranged from a high of 82 percent in Louisiana to 53 percent in Massachusetts.

National results for the 2009 NAEP reading tests were released in March, and the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday is scheduled to release results in reading from the Trial Urban District Assessment, which compares the performance of 4th and 8th grade students in 18 of the largest U.S. school districts.

The foundation adds a new wrinkle to those analyses, though, by breaking out passage rates for disadvantaged students in the nation’s neediest schools.

The figures show how poverty and different school contexts can exacerbate the proportion of students having trouble mastering reading. While 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty failed to hit the grade-level reading target, for example, the corresponding percentage for low-income African-American students in schools with high concentrations of poor students was 90 percent. For economically disadvantaged Hispanic students, the percentage of students falling short of proficiency drops from 88 percent in the schools with the most poor children to 82 percent in better-off schools.

The nation’s reading problem is also worse than it seems, the foundation says, because many states, facing pressure to boost students’ scores on state exams, have lowered the “cut scores,” which are the number of items that students must answer correctly. To underscore that point, the report cites an earlier study by the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that only 16 states set their proficiency standards at levels that met or exceeded NAEP’s lower “basic” standard.

It’s crucial that children master grade-level reading by 3rd grade, the report says, because that’s when instruction moves from a focus on learning to read to reading to learn.

Room for Improvement

The report also offers several recommendations for improving children’s reading, including targeting absenteeism—an aspect of schooling that is often overlooked. Nationwide, the report says, an average of one in 10 kindergartners and 1st graders miss 10 percent or more of the school year because of excused or unexcused absences. In some districts, the ratio is as high as one in four for children in grades K-3.

“Because we generally thought about it in terms of truancy, we haven’t really done the math,” Mr. Smith said. “When you do that, you find that for many reasons we have not completely built a culture of attendance.”

The report also targets the disproportionate learning losses experienced by poor children over the summer as another area ripe for improvement.

To underscore that point, the report cites research showing that low-income children fall behind during the summer by as much as two months in reading achievement, while middle-income students tend to make slight gains in that subject over the same period. That’s because more-affluent parents can better afford books, computers, summer camps, and other learning opportunities that keep students learning when school is out, the report says.

The report also makes a pitch for developing a coherent system of early care and education that “aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through 3rd grade,” so that children enter 4th grade healthy and better able to understand the more-complex reading tests they encounter at that level.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Analysis Ties 4th Grade Reading Failure to Poverty

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