Report: Reading skills in early grades are crucial to success

Students who don’t have effective reading skills by the end of third grade are more likely to fall behind. Later achievement, including high school graduation, can be affected, a new report says.

Rob Carr/AP/File
Jennifer Ries, a third grade teacher at Belmont Elementary, works with students in her class in Baltimore on March 25. A new report says students who don’t have effective reading skills by the end of third grade are more likely to fall behind.

Those working to improve high school and college graduation rates may need to focus their attention on a milestone that comes far earlier: whether students can read well by the end of third grade.

After that point, classroom materials tend to be more complex, and students who don’t have effective reading skills are more likely to fall behind.

A new report argues that third-grade reading proficiency heavily influences later achievement, including high school graduation. Currently, 83 percent of low-income fourth-graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) don’t achieve reading proficiency.

What’s needed, say the report’s authors and other education advocates, is more focus on children’s 0-8 years, as well as a system that does a better job of integrating early-childhood education, K-12, parental support, and health and human services.

“The end of third grade is a critical pivot point,” says Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which released the report. “When children get to fourth grade, there’s a high level of expectation that they will master material that’s more sophisticated and more complicated, and that they’re going to be active participants in their own learning by actively reading and digesting this information, including word problems for math.”

Mr. Smith argues that the time is ripe – with bipartisan support for tougher standards and more focus on early-childhood years – for a concerted effort to tackle the problem. One key, he says, is getting rid of the current fragmented approach to students’ learning.

“Making the distinction between K-12 and early childhood is a fundamental mistake,” Smith says. “We are not going to be able to realize our fondest aspirations for an effective K-12 system without deep and continuing, coordinated investment in children from birth on.”

His report calls for attention to the role that parents and other caregivers play in those early years, in addition to school. It also focuses on two factors that contribute to low-income children’s poor reading achievement: chronic absences from school and learning loss over the summer.

“This may be the low-hanging fruit” in improving reading proficiency, he says.

Already, a number of entities – including states, districts, and nonprofits – are paying more attention to children’s first years and how to better integrate those into the K-12 system.

In Texas, one district has started a pilot project to weave together high-quality preschool, job training, and other support for low-income families.

“We believe that in order for the child to be successful, the family has to be successful,” says Elizabeth Garza, superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio. The two-year-old program – supported by Casey and through other community partnerships – is already showing some results, she says, with reading scores improving in the first target school.

Many of the necessary services already exist, Ms. Garza says. “The hard part is coming together and saying how can we bring the services to the people and use the school as a conduit.”

This is an issue, some nonprofits agree, that should bring together a variety of groups, whether their traditional focus is education or poverty and human services.

“Obviously, access to quality education, great materials, and great teaching is important. But also important is that kids are healthy, that they have access to good nutrition, and that their families are stable,” says Stacey Stewart, an executive vice president at United Way Worldwide. “This research represents a way to galvanize people around one important goal that can make a difference in the lives of so many kids.”


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