Reading & Literacy

States Target Early Years to Reach 3rd Grade Reading Goals

By Catherine Gewertz — June 29, 2011 9 min read
Chris Canady, 10, reads from Monsters Don't Scuba Dive at the All-America City event last month in Kansas City, Mo., sponsored by the National Civic League. In 2012, the league will for the first time bestow awards on education initiatives, specifically early reading.
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In a bid to help more students read proficiently in 3rd grade—a skill considered critical to their future educational success—new laws and initiatives springing up around the country require educators to step up their efforts to identify and help struggling readers even before they enter kindergarten.

It’s not unusual for states or school districts to consider 3rd grade reading proficiency a key goal; research suggests it’s a pivotal skill. Policies against social promotion have hinged on it, and the earliest testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act attach to 3rd grade.

But the recent buzz of activity around early reading is notable for the way it looks backward from 3rd grade, articulating plans and requirements designed to ensure that pupils and teachers in preschool through 2nd grade are doing what’s necessary to reach the desired reading results in 3rd grade.

“We’re seeing far more attention now to identifying the kids who are behind and intervening quickly,” said Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group that monitors state legislation and has noted an uptick of activity in early reading. “People are trying to align [policies] from the time kids start preschool. They’re being far more proactive.”

In trying to line up the early-literacy dots, policymakers are responding to increasing political pressure to boost achievement as the NCLB law’s 100-percent-proficiency deadline of 2014 approaches. They’re also increasingly uneasy about lackluster national reading performance: Only one-third of 4th graders scored at or above “proficient” on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2009. (“Little Progress Seen in Student Results on Reading NAEP,” March 31, 2010.)

“There is such a push for pre-K-3 now, and the time is right,” said Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, the director of special programs in the Bremerton, Wash., school district, which has drawn notice for boosting its youngest students’ reading skills by teaming the K-12 system with nearly every early-childhood program in the city.

“A lot of people are seeking it out in part because of frustration about student achievement,” she said. “They’re working really hard, and thinking, ‘Gee, if only we could reach kids earlier.’ ”

State Initiatives

In drafting laws and designing initiatives, politicians and educators are relying on a growing mound of research that points to 3rd grade reading proficiency as a crucial milestone. One of the latest studies found that children who aren’t reading on grade level by 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than peers who are. If those struggling readers are poor, they’re 13 times likelier to be high school dropouts than their wealthier, reading-proficient peers.

In the past year, a handful of states have adopted laws requiring schools to diagnose reading difficulties in the grades leading to 3rd.

A new law in Utah, for instance, requires a system of diagnostic reading tests at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year for K-3 pupils. Results must be reported to parents, and interventions provided to address weaknesses.

“This is an attempt to have a statewide program so we don’t wait until the end of 3rd grade to see whether students are reading on grade level,” said state Rep. Merlynn T. Newbold, a Republican and the chief sponsor of the bill. “It’s all about ‘the earlier, the better.’ ”

Some of the new laws require retention of 3rd graders who can’t clear a proficiency bar on a state reading test. Typically, such laws also include exceptions for pupils with disabilities and those learning English, and sometimes, for those who can demonstrate proficiency by other means. A few of the measures allow parents to appeal or override retentions.

A law enacted in Arizona in May 2010 includes dual mandates of retention and early identification: It requires screening of the reading levels of all children entering kindergarten and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades. Guided by a special task force, the state will soon provide guidance to districts on ways to do that, said Sen. Rich Crandall, a Republican who worked on the bill when he was a state representative, and who now chairs the Senate education committee.

In Oklahoma, a new law requires schools to screen K-3 pupils for reading difficulties and provide help if they aren’t on track. Parents must be notified if their 3rd graders are reading below the “limited knowledge” level on state tests. If those difficulties aren’t remedied, pupils won’t be promoted to 4th grade. The law mandates intensive intervention for children held back, but also requires help for those identified as struggling readers.

The law aims to reach children long before their struggles become damaging, said state Rep. Ann Coody, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill. A companion measure that became law in April requires all teachers of reading in K-3 to incorporate into their teaching the five key elements of reading instruction identified in 2000 by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary.

“I think most teachers really do think about where kids need to be in 1st [grade], and in 2nd, in order to be reading well in 3rd grade,” Ms. Coody said. “But in some cases, folks have not been thinking about it. We need everyone to do this.”

Another law, passed in March in New Mexico, requires early-grades teachers to have knowledge of “the science of teaching reading” in order to obtain licensure.

Appropriate Interventions

The crop of laws on 3rd grade reading has renewed strains of worry, however, even among those who applaud the building of strong early-reading skills.

Sherry Mee Bell, who heads the department of theory and practice in teacher education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said a key consideration is what methods are used to identify and help the youngest struggling readers.

“There is a danger that we could focus too much on narrow, word-level skills to the detriment of language development and appreciation of literature,” said Ms. Bell, whose work focuses on training teachers to assess children, especially those with special needs, in reading. Her state adopted a law last month requiring retention of 3rd graders whose grades or test scores don’t demonstrate adequate reading skill.

“The challenge is in matching the assessment and intervention with what the child needs,” Ms. Bell said. “We need to do that according to their developmental stage, too. And we need to know the children we teach, to be able to draw on their own needs and experiences to make reading and writing meaningful to them.”

Other experts have long cautioned that reading instruction can’t be separated from acquisition of content knowledge. A 2008 evaluation of the now-defunct federally funded Reading First program found that its approach, which focused on discrete reading skills, improved students’ decoding ability, but made little impact on their comprehension.

Still others have urged educators to expand their K-3 reading focus to older students, arguing that those in grades 4-12 need a unique set of strategies geared to deepening understanding of informational and more-complex texts.

The uptick in activity on building a pathway to 3rd grade reading isn’t limited to the state level.

A new federal Race to the Top competition dangles $500 million over states that show a commitment to early learning.

In Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson has made early literacy a top priority. In March, he announced a campaign to improve reading in the state’s capital. Only 39 percent of the city’s 3rd graders are able to read at grade level.

A Broad Reach

The campaign will involve city libraries, community-service providers, preschools, and five school districts that serve Sacramento, the mayor said. While plans are still being formulated, the campaign will likely include finding a shared way for all five school systems to conduct diagnostic reading assessments on their kindergartners, he said.

“We are engaging the entire community,” Mr. Johnson said in a telephone interview. “This is a topic all mayors and people around the country can rally around.”

Sacramento’s priorities reflect those of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national group of more than 70 philanthropies and other funders that was launched this year in hopes of renewing attention to the importance that school readiness, attendance, and summer learning play in reaching 3rd grade reading proficiency.

One of the programs cited as a model by that campaign is in Bremerton, where the 5,500-student district has provided curriculum and monthly training to nearly all preschool and child-care programs in the city for 10 years to align early-reading skills with those required of 3rd graders. District officials and teachers meet regularly with the early-childhood partners to monitor progress, discuss instructional strategies, and plan smooth grade-to-grade transitions. Early-childhood programs that participate fully display a seal indicating their commitment to the goals and practices of the initiative.

The initiative expanded to provide universal all-day kindergarten in 2006. Four years later, state test results showed 75 percent of the district’s 3rd graders reading on grade level, up from 64 percent in 2006. In 2001, when the initiative began, only 4 percent of entering kindergartners knew the alphabet; now 63 percent do.

Educators are so inspired that they are expanding the work to mathematics, said Ms. Sullivan-Dudzic, a leader of the program. Other districts are clamoring for Bremerton’s guidance on early-childhood literacy; Ms. Sullivan-Dudzic and her colleagues have trained more than 50 districts across Washington state.

The National Civic League announced last month that it would base its 2012 All America City award on communities’ “comprehensive, realistic, and sustainable” plans to boost reading proficiency by 3rd grade. The 10 winning communities must demonstrate strategies for better school readiness, attendance, and summer learning. It’s the first time in the 63-year history of the award that the organization has taken education as its theme.

“This is the first time we’ve seen such urgency on an [education issue] that we’re going to take a break from the classic themes of previous awards, like environmental or fiscal sustainability, to focus on this issue instead,” said NCL President Gloria Rubio-Cortés.

Because the award emphasizes community collaboration and long-term change, it’s well suited to the early-reading theme, since addressing that problem requires cross-sector cooperation and long-term commitment, she said. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, and United Way Worldwide will partner with the National Civic League in helping cities prepare their bids for the award.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as P-2 Years Targeted to Achieve Grade 3 Reading Proficiency


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