Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Early Grades Crucial in Path to Reading Proficiency

By Christina A. Samuels — January 03, 2015 7 min read
From left, 2nd graders Love Shama Georges, Tiffany Argueta, Maria Vega, and Daniella Bonilla work during a reading-intervention class at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md.
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Children who are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are widely seen as being in academic crisis. Educators are increasingly looking for actions they can take in the younger grades—even as early as preschool—to head off failure later in a child’s school career.

The stakes are clear: Studies have shown that absent effective intervention, children who read significantly below grade level by 3rd grade continue to struggle in school and eventually face a much higher likelihood of dropping out altogether.

To tackle the problem, states have implemented a variety of policies intended to help identify reading problems before they become entrenched, and then steer children into instruction that will change their trajectory. Such policies include training teachers in research-based reading interventions, connecting students with specially trained reading instructors, offering one-on-one and group instruction in reading, and providing summer school to students who need help.

Another more controversial option, adopted by 14 states and the District of Columbia, is to hold some 3rd graders back for a year if they don’t pass a standardized test. (Students with disabilities and those who are learning English are often exempted from retention policies.)

Student retention as a part of a strategy to support early literacy has vocal critics as well as supporters. But no one is arguing against the importance of ensuring that children are reaching reading milestones throughout the early grades.

“We’re encouraging what we’re calling smart and sensible 3rd grade reading policies,” said Ralph Smith, the managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a coalition of organizations that promote early literacy. “Early identification, support, and, where necessary and appropriate, retention as an intervention—but not as a punishment.”

State Reading Policies

More than half the states and the District of Columbia have enacted policies intended to identify struggling readers early and get them the instructional support they need. Several states also have policies that require students to be held back for an additional year in 3rd grade if they don’t meet a state-defined literacy standard.

BRIC ARCHIVE

35 states + DC: Require a reading assessment or diagnosis of reading deficiency anytime from preschool to 3rd grade.
AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, ID, IL, IA, KY, LA, MD, MN, MS, MO, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY

BRIC ARCHIVE

31 states + DC: Require districts to offer some type of intervention or remediation for struggling readers in some grade from preschool to 3rd. Some states mandate the intervention, while others allow states to choose from a list of suggestions.
AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, ID, IA, KY, MD, MN, MS, MO, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, RI, SC, TX, UT, VT, VA, WV, WI, WY

BRIC ARCHIVE

23 states + DC: Require schools to notify parents of a student’s reading deficiency, the interventions in place, and the possibility (if applicable) that the student may be retained.
AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, IA, MN, MS, MO, NY, NC, OH, OK, SC, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WI

BRIC ARCHIVE

14 states + DC: Require that 3rd grade students be proficient in reading, usually by meeting a specific score on a statewide reading test, to be promoted to the 4th grade. Students may also be given alternate assessments, and students with disabilities or English-language learners are often offered exemptions.
AZ, AR, CA, CT, DC, FL, GA, IA, MD, MS, MO, NC, OH, SC, TN

BRIC ARCHIVE

6 states: Recommend or require that a reading specialist be brought in to work with a struggling reader.
CT, FL, NM, OK, UT, VA

SOURCE: Education Commission of the States

Legislators Take Note

Although children are expected to build literacy skills early—the Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of providing access to informational texts as early as kindergarten—3rd grade marks a major year of transition.

By the time students are ready to move on to 4th grade, they are expected to have the reading skills they need to absorb information independently. A commonly used shorthand is that children will be “reading to learn,” instead of “learning to read,” though reading researchers note that children are reading for information early on in their school careers.

Researchers confirm the risks of falling behind.

Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College, at the City University of New York, studied nearly 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989. Sixteen percent of them overall did not have a diploma by age 19, but students who struggled with reading in early-elementary school made up 88 percent of those who did not receive a diploma. A combination of poverty and low reading skills made a student 13 times less likely to graduate by age 19.

“We teach reading for the first three grades, and then after that, children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics,” Mr. Hernandez told Education Week when his study was published in 2011. “In that sense, if you haven’t succeeded by 3rd grade, it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.”

But getting the details right can be difficult, in the view of Barbara O’Brien, a former lieutenant governor of Colorado, now a member of the Denver school board.

“People know intuitively that we ought to be able to get things right in the early grades in school,” said Ms. O’Brien, the policy director for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “It shouldn’t be that hard—but obviously it is.”

So how should schools, districts, and states tackle the issue?

Kristie Kauerz, a professor of policy and leadership at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who focuses on preschool through 3rd grade, has said that schools must consider the early grades as a seamless continuum centered on nurturing the “whole child.”

Paying Dividends

That strong early start will pay dividends in 4th grade and beyond, she wrote in an article for the March/April 2013 issue Principal magazine.

An example of that work, she said, is the Early Success Performance Plan implemented by the 146,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school system. That plan, she wrote, included curriculum alignment; “extensive professional development for teachers; a priority on full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes for the district’s most at-risk students; and both summer advancement and after-school programs for struggling elementary students.”

D. Ray Reutzel, the director of the Early Childhood Education and Research Center at Utah State University, in Logan, says schools and districts should more widely support multitiered systems of support or “response to intervention” frameworks that are intended to identify problems early and steer children to appropriate remediation.

“If we wait too long, the chances that we can really help these children are greatly diminished,” Mr. Reutzel said during an Education Week webinar in November on the topic of 3rd-grade reading readiness.

Teacher training has also garnered attention in the effort to bolster early reading.

Although states such as California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin have adopted policies requiring teachers to demonstrate their knowledge of the science of reading, teachers often get very little specific training in reading instruction, said Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early-childhood development in Chicago.

“We end up doing a lot of professional development on the in-service side,” Ms. Fleming said.

Lawmakers in some states have attempted to group all these interventions into a comprehensive set of policies.

Florida, which made a high-profile effort starting with the 2002-03 school year to address concerns over below-grade-level reading, is one example. Steps included summer school for struggling students, 90-minute blocks of reading instruction for them using research-based methods, and the reassignment of such students to a high-performing teacher during the retained year. Florida also enacted a policy of retaining some 3rd graders who did not demonstrate proficiency on the state test.

Florida’s reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose in the wake of the changes. Researchers Jay P. Greene, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York, have analyzed Florida’s data and found the positive effects of the policy persisted through 7th grade, though, they note, they cannot separate the effects of retention specifically from all the other policy changes Florida enacted.

Caution Flags

Others in the field argue that the bump in academic proficiency among students retained in the 3rd grade is temporary and comes at a great cost in terms of student self-esteem or increased dropout rates.

“It’s an ‘I give up’ strategy,” said Susan Neuman, a professor in educational studies at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. A former U.S. assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education during the George W. Bush administration, she helped establish the Early Reading First program.

“We know what needs to be in place for many of these children,” Ms. Neuman said. “We have a lot of data which predict who is likely to have problems in reading and other skills. We have been negligent in putting those strategies in place very early on.”

Some states try to straddle a line in policy: Colorado, for example, offers struggling young readers supplemental-reading supports, among other interventions. Parents and teachers are required to meet to discuss next steps for children with reading deficiencies, but retention is not a requirement.

“I do think there is an important role for retention,” said Ms. O’Brien of the Denver school board. “But you have to do it in a way where you’re not just taking 3rd grade all over again.”

Though it also provides early supports, Ohio’s retention policy is mandatory. As part of its Third Grade Reading Guarantee, the state held back about 5,000 children who were in 3rd grade in 2012-13, the first year the program went into effect.

But Richard Ross, the Ohio superintendent of public instruction, offered an audience at the recent National Summit for Education Reform in Washington another way to look at the numbers. When Ohio administered its reading assessment in the 2012-13 school year, about 14,000 students fell short of the state’s 3rd grade reading cutoff score. The numbers shrank after alternative tests and summer test scores came in, he said—meaning that supplemental interventions worked for 9,000 students.

“The Third Grade Guarantee in Ohio,” he said, “is here to stay.”

Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks contributed to this article.

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