Reading & Literacy

Eight in 10 Lower-Income 4th Graders Not Reading Proficiently, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — January 28, 2014 2 min read
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A new report on elementary students’ reading proficiency finds that 80 percent of students from lower-income families aren’t reading proficiently by the time they reach 4th grade.

The “data snapshot” released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has long studied reading prowess as a key measure of children’s well-being, also finds that two-thirds of all students, regardless of income, are not reading proficiently by 4th grade.

In defining reading proficiency, it sets a high bar; the report uses data from the 2013 and 2003 administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, whose proficiency cut scores are widely recognized as rigorous. Many states’ own standardized measures of reading ability set proficiency at lower cut points.

According to the report, children from higher-income families have improved their reading skills more in the past decade than have their lower-income peers. Students who are African American or Latino, and those learning English, are more likely to fall short of the reading-proficiency mark in 4th grade than their white and Asian peers.

Eighty-three percent of black children, for instance, and 81 percent of Latino children, are not reading at a NAEP level of proficiency by 4th grade, compared with 55 percent of white children and 49 percent of Asian children, according to the Casey Foundation data.

The Baltimore-based foundation looked at reading proficiency rates state by state, and found that all but six states have made strides in improving reading skills among their younger students. But in every state, more than half of the students are not reading at the NAEP proficiency level by the time they enter 4th grade.

Massachusetts has the best showing, with 53 percent of 4th graders reading below the proficiency mark, but it also had one of the biggest gaps in that rate between higher- and lower-income students. New Mexico and Mississippi have the worst rates, with 79 percent of 4th graders reading below NAEP’s proficiency cutoff.

Third grade reading proficiency has been linked to a host of better outcomes later in life, such as getting a high school diploma and a job that can support a family. The Casey Foundation’s earlier reports, such as “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” “Early Warning Confirmed,” and “Double Jeopardy,” lay out the statistics behind those conclusions.

The foundation is a lead player in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which zeroes in on three factors that affect children’s chances of reading well by 3rd grade: school readiness, summer learning loss, and chronic absenteeism.

Education is one of the topics the Casey Foundation tracks as part of its ongoing Kids Count reporting on child and family well-being.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.