There are milestones that every family looks forward to in the development of their children. The first night they sleep all night. Their first steps. The first words they speak. The first day they attend school (and the last day). Starting that awkward trek from childhood to adulthood. All of these little steps go by quickly and are indicators of children who are developing. If any of these occurrences are delayed, people become concerned. Doctors are consulted, tests are run, and there are efforts made to discover the reason development has been delayed.
Not all milestones in development are scrutinized and celebrated. There is one that normally goes by with little fanfare. It is the transition from third grade to fourth grade. This is a major step in the educational development of a student. Subjects become more involved in fourth grade, which means the texts that go with them become more complex. Students that had difficulty reading and understanding the lessons in third grade start to fall further behind. Falling behind their peers can lead to a variety of issues, from disruptive behavior to avoiding classroom activities.
Poor populations are much more at risk for this drop to occur. A report created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Learning to Read, Reading to Learn, indicates that over 80% of students that come from low-income areas do not read proficiently by fourth grade. Not reading at grade level by fourth grade makes them four times as likely to drop out of school, impacting their future earning potential. They are also more likely to end up incarcerated at some point in their lives, further impacting their future. Students that drop out of school cost taxpayers roughly $260,000, further straining state and local budgets.
Why not hold them back? This obvious choice would expose them to the material longer and giving them the opportunity to truly learn to read before they make the next step. However, an article by Martin West published in 2012 (Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?) shows that keeping a child back at third grade could have a worse outcome. As children get older, the effect becomes even more pronounced. This effect can be mitigated by having a summer reading program available for those that are held back, similar to the one Florida passed in 2002. It is not only a risky proposition; it is an expensive one.
Building students up during their first years of school is the most affordable option. On average, holding a student back costs a district over $10,000 per student held back. These costs include lost time to the teachers in the year students were held back and the extra year they attend school. Summer reading programs can often be supported by independent grants as well as national Title I funding. These summer programs help prevent the dreaded summer slide, especially those from lower-income homes. Summer slide can cost the school district as well.
The effects of allowing students to fall behind grade reading are far-reaching. The impacts they have on the school and school district are measurable, but the effects on the student can be devastating, perhaps even life-changing for them. As you are getting ready to celebrate that first day of school, make sure you mark their first day of fourth grade on the calendar as well. It could be another milestone with a long-term impact.
“He turned and reached behind him for the chocolate bar, then he turned back again and handed it to Charlie. Charlie grabbed it and quickly tore off the wrapper and took an enormous bite. Then he took another…and another…and oh, the joy of being able to cram large pieces of something sweet and solid into one’s mouth! The sheer blissful joy of being able to fill one’s mouth with rich solid food!
‘You look like you wanted that one, sonny,’ the shopkeeper said pleasantly.
Charlie nodded, his mouth bulging with chocolate.”
The above passage is from the beloved children’s book and movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. This book has been the subject of two movies and is considered a classic of children’s literature. It is also a book that is written at a third grade reading level.
A 2010 report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, titled Early Warning! Why Reading By The End of the Third Grade Matters, lays out a grim image of what happens to a child that is not reading proficiently at that age level. In 2009, 49 percent of low income students were below “Basic” reading level when they reached fourth grade. This correlates to a 23 percent drop out rate for these students. Even raising their reading level to “proficient” lowers their odds of dropping out to just 4 percent. Lower income students are at greater risk of dropping out because of a general lack of resources, including time with parents.
The focus in education switches at that point in most schools. For the first eight years of their lives, students are learning to read. They are picking up vocabulary, context, and learning the flow of a story. Fourth grade is a pivot point where they start reading to learn. Their understanding of the written word and how it is used contributes to learning about topics like science and history. Lagging behind in the basics of reading this point accelerates the learning gap.
Bringing students to a third grade reading level is a critical mark to hit in the education of students. It is not a goal to start working on in the August they enter third grade. There are many other opportunities before then to bring them up to grade level.
The first opportunity is getting them ready for kindergarten. We know that reading at an early age provides lifelong benefits. If they are ready to read when they start kindergarten, they are already ahead of the game. They have a larger vocabulary to work with and they are already starting to put together words and context.
Encouraging them to read over the summer keeps them from the dreaded “summer slide.” Like any other skill, if you are not using it you are losing it. Students who do not read over the summer can lose up to two months of learning. They will be forced to work hard to catch up. A little bit of reading daily, even if it is at bedtime, can help prevent that loss.
Beyond being able to read wonderful books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, proficient reading by third grade is crucial. It is a launching point on the educational path into new worlds. They are laying the groundwork, even at that young age, to get ready for college. It is important that educators and parents are making every effort to ensure their success
In 2014, the state of Ohio instituted the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
Created in 2012 by local state Senator Peggy Lehner, this program is designed to ensure that students are underperforming in reading receive resources to help.
Students in public and public charter schools need to pass their third-grade reading proficiency test with a 77% before they are allowed to move to fourth grade reading. Failing that test means they have to stay with third-grade reading, but can be promoted to fourth grade in other subjects. This effort came after a decade of stagnant test growth by fourth graders. While it may seem like this legislation was enacted to boost test scores, there are much more important reasons to push students to read well by third grade.
Many educators, and other experts in the field, recognize third grade as a critical time for students. This time in their education is when they switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
In Ohio, many school districts end reading classes after the third grade, though some extend them to fourth grade. Students who are not reading at grade level by the third grade are more four times less likely to graduate from school. Poor students who cannot read at grade level by that time are thirteen times less likely to graduate, according to a 2011 study by the American Educational Research Association. These are some daunting numbers, but there is a silver lining. When schools invest in early education programs, they can drop those the number of students needing individual plans to catch up by thirty-two percent.
To help schools improve student scores, some of the state budget is earmarked to bring in resources to help. And help is needed. Many children that are in the lowest percentiles of learning have multiple challenges to overcome. Some of them are transient. They may start in one school district, and end up in another one by the end of that year. This can make it a challenge to bring up test scores, as not every school has the same reading standards. Students may read at first and second-grade levels when they get to third grade, increasing the challenge for teachers. Children that live in houses with lower incomes have additional obstacles to overcome, as we have discussed in other articles.
In spite of all these challenges, there have been some encouraging results. In the first few years, schools have seen a 94% success rate of improving student reading scores. This has been a product of the extra focus on reading and the additional resources provided to underperforming school districts. The Ohio Department of Education has created a guide to help school districts understand the program as well as find ways to fund it. It is possible to spend Title I funds on outside resources that move students closer to the Third Grade Reading Guarantee goals. The early successes of this program are giving school districts using its optimism for the future of their students.