Third-Grade Reading and High School Graduation


Photo of child reading with mother by woodleywonderworksMany of us have heard that reading by third-grade is critical for a child’s school success and school success ultimately leads to overall success in life. Here is a sobering article, recently forwarded to me, that supports this from School Library Journal, April 21, 2001: "Poverty, Third-Grade Reading Proficiency Impact High School Graduation Rates".

Poverty and Proficiency: What's The Correlation?

Poverty and third-grade reading proficiency have a huge impact on high school graduation rates, says a new study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that helps disadvantaged kids.

Students who don't read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than kids who are proficient readers, says "Double Jeopardy: How Poverty & Third-Grade Reading Skills Influence High School Graduation," which studied nearly 4,000 students nationwide.

Overall, poverty compounds the problem: poor students are three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time. And poverty impacts even the best readers, with poor proficient third graders graduating at about the same rate as subpar readers who've never been poor.

Six Times Greater Risk

Kids who are poor readers and live in poverty are the hardest hit—they're six times at greater risk than their proficient counterparts, the study found. For black and Latino students, the combined effects of poverty and poor third-grade reading skills makes the rate eight times greater.

Reading and the Achievement Gap

"We will never close the achievement gap, we will never solve our dropout crisis, we will never break the cycle of poverty that afflicts so many children if we don't make sure that all our students learn to read," says Ralph Smith, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's executive vice president. "This research confirms the compelling need to address the underlying issues that keep children from reading."

The longitudinal study by Donald Hernandez was released last week at the national Education Writers Association conference in New Orleans and confirms the link between third-grade scores and high school graduation rates. And for the first time, it breaks down the likelihood of graduation based on different reading levels and poverty experiences.

Ten Years of Data

The study examined 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989. The children's parents were surveyed every two years to determine the family's economic status and other factors, while the children's reading progress was tracked using the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) Reading Recognition subtest. The data determined whether students finished high school by age 19, but didn't indicate whether they dropped out.

Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic

The researchers divided the children into three reading groups that corresponded to the skill levels used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): proficient, basic, and below basic. The kids were also separated into three income categories: those who've never been poor, those who spent some time in poverty, and those who have lived more than half the years surveyed in poverty.

Factors in Not Finishing High School

Most of the students in the sample managed to finish high school by the time they were 19. But for students who didn't, the rates were highest among those who didn't read well in third grade and those who have lived in poverty. Black and Hispanic students, disproportionately represented in both those categories, were twice as likely as similar white children not to graduate on time.

The study found that overall, 22 percent of kids who have lived in poverty fail to graduate from high school, compared to 6 percent of those who have never been poor. This rises to 32 percent for students spending more than half of the survey time in poverty.

For students who were poor for at least a year and were not reading proficiently in third grade, the proportion of those who don't finish school rose to 26 percent. The rate was highest for poor black and Hispanic students, at 31 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Even so, the majority of students who fail to graduate are white.

Even among poor children who were proficient readers in third grade, 11 percent still didn't finish high school. That compares to 9 percent of subpar third graders who were never poor.Among kids who never lived in poverty, all but 2 percent of the best third-grade readers graduated from high school on time.

What Needs to Improve

"These findings suggest we need to work in three arenas: improving the schools where these children are learning to read, helping the families weighed down by poverty and encouraging better federal, state and local policy to improve the lot of both schools and families," says Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at City University and a senior advisor to the Foundation for Child Development.


The report recommends aligning quality early education programs with the curriculum and standards in the primary grades; paying better attention to the health and developmental needs of young children; and providing work training and other programs that will help lift families out of poverty.

2/3s of Students Aren't Reading on Grade Level  By 4th Grade

Nationally, two thirds of students are not reading on grade level by the fourth grade, the earliest year of testing in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That proportion rises to four-fifths for low-income children, according to NAEP results.

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks


Author Bio:

Jeanine Asche is the Community Engagement Services Manager for San Mateo County Library. This article originally appeared in the newsletter Extra Helping. Go here to subscribe.

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