Does third-grade reading proficiency matter?

  • July 22, 2015
  • /   Reggie Dogan
  • /   education

Third grader Kavin Hollins reads during summer school at Oakcrest Elementary. Ample research indicates that reading proficiency by the third grade is an important predictor of high school graduation and career success. (Michael Spooneybarger/ Studer Community Institute).

It’s been more than three decades since research began to show that children with low third-grade reading scores were less likely to graduate from high school than children with higher reading scores.

Third grade became the yardstick because educators say that’s when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn.

In Escambia County last year, 55 percent of third-graders were proficient in reading, scoring a 3.5 or better. In Santa Rosa, 73 percent of third-graders showed reading proficiency.

In comparison, 64 percent of seniors graduated in Escambia County in 2014, and nearly 79 percent finished school that year in Santa Rosa.

While the reading scores and graduation rates in the two-county area don’t precisely match, they are close enough to draw conclusions.

Kelly Aeppli-Campbell, Escambia County School District’s Elementary English and Language Arts Specialist, believes the research on third-grade reading is as true today as it was 30 years ago.

“Third-grade reading proficiency is a powerful predictor of success in school,” Aeppli-Campbell said. “If they don’t have effective instruction they will continue to struggle and face a much higher possibility of dropping out of high school.”

Given ample research and studies that show a correlation between third-grade reading proficiency and achievement in school, schools must focus not only on helping struggling students close the gap by grade three, but also ensure that students who are on-target don’t fall behind.

In both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, a focus on literacy through invention is key.

“One thing the district has done is implement an early intervention program to ensure that students are receiving intervention,” said Beth Lees, Santa Rosa schools teacher on assignment for elementary literacy. “By the time they get to the third-, fourth- or fifth-grade levels they are able to take that knowledge of reading and apply it to the comprehension.”

Tim Wyrosdick, Santa Rosa superintendent of schools, believes literacy is the absolute key to learning.

“Literacy is the keyhole for opening the door to higher learning,” Wyrosdick said. “We have to focus on reading at an early age, and make literacy a high priority at those lower grade levels.

Wyrosdick recalls Rick Harper, University of West Florida’s assistant vice president for economic development and senior fellow for the Studer Community Institute, emphasizing that the key for economic growth is having literate 4-year-olds.

“That’s a powerful statement to how important literacy is,” Wyrosdick sdaid. “We hinge on pushing literacy very early. We begin in preschool and the third grade is really the litmus test for us.”

Early intervening

Through the district’s Title I program, the Early Intervention Program for grades K-3 emphasizes early literacy as a crucial connection to academic success for every child, especially those third-graders struggling to read.

The program includes having academic intervention specialists who work closely with reading coaches, the school literacy team and data coaches in an effort to improve academic performance.

The program pays close attention to at-risk students from low-income families who are more likely to be below average third-grade reading proficiency.

Every elementary school except Gulf Breeze in Santa Rosa County is classified as Title I, the federal grant program designed to give educational assistance to students living in areas of high poverty.

“We do a good job of prioritizing to meet the needs of students where poverty may be an issue,” said Patti Petrie, the district’s literacy coordinator. “Our goal is to make sure we have the resources for those schools and provide as much as we can for the parents and the community as well.”


In Escambia County, much like Santa Rosa, the district uses the Multi-Tier System of Supports, or MTSS.

The system is described as a three-tiered framework that uses increasingly more intense instruction and interventions matched to need.

They include targeted instruction, more tutoring and mentoring, a smaller teacher-to-student ratio, extended school days and parent workshops.


Aeppli-Campbell also points to the state-required third-grade summer reading camp as an example of a program that has made great strides in improving reading scores.

“The summer reading camp wasn’t for promotion, but it was for that intensive, systematic, instruction everyday for 23 days,” she said.

The camp played a pivotal role in preparing struggling students for the fourth grade, gave them remediation during the summer and improved reading skills all at the same time, said Linda Maletsidis, the district’s director of elementary education.

“Kids need to read over the summer,” Maletsidis said. “They need the practice, and I would recommend that for all students.”

Problem of poverty

The research basis for focusing on reading proficiency by the third grade is an essential step toward increasing the number of children who succeed academically and do well in their lives and careers.

Take, for example, a 2011 study Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md., that followed 382 children from kindergarten to third grade.

The report, “Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading,” emphasized the importance of children becoming proficient readers by the end of third grade, especially those living in high-poverty communities.

A follow up to the 2010’s,“Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” the report supported the link between reading deficiencies and broader social consequences, including how living in poor households and high-poverty areas contribute to racial disparities in literacy skills and how low achievement in reading impacts future earning potential.

It found those in lower ranks of reading achievement were like to remain there.

At each subsequent data collection point over a 14-year period, the struggling readers fell further behind their grade-level peers.

There is some good news for children who are reached at an early age. Those who attend some form of preschool program at age 4 are 9 percentage points more likely to be school-ready than other children.

This is largely due to early math and reading skills and to a lesser extent, positive learning-related behaviors acquired in preschool.

“Early learning is very important, and I think with any grade you have to have quality teachers,” Aeppli-Campbell said. “Students who attend quality preschool programs are likely to be school-ready.”

Correlating with past research, a national study released in early July shows that students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers.

Poverty compounds the problem: Students who have lived in poverty are three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time than their more affluent peers.

The study, “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” found:

  • One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.

The rates are highest for the low, below-basic readers: 23 percent of these children drop out or fail to finish high school on time, compared to 9 percent of children with basic reading skills and 4 percent of proficient readers.

The below-basic readers account for a third of the sample but three-fifths of the students who do not graduate.

Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not 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 children 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 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 children who never lived in poverty, all but 2 percent of the best third-grade readers graduated from high school on time.

The study was conducted by Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, and a senior advisor to the Foundation for Child Development. It was commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Making progress

The research affirms the link between third grade scores and high school graduation and, for the first time, breaks down the likelihood of graduation by different reading skill levels and poverty experiences.

The findings suggested work in three important areas: improving schools where the children are learning to read, helping the families bogged down by poverty and encouraging better federal, state and local policy to improve both schools and families.

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

Poverty, of course, is an identifiable factor in third-grade reading proficiency.

In Escambia County, four elementary schools in which nearly all of the students qualify for free- and reduced-priced lunch — Weis, Lincoln Park, Montclair and West Pensacola — the average reading proficiency score was a paltry 17.75 percent.

While poverty is no excuse for poor performance, the lack of resources, generational cycles of poverty and lack of family support exacerbate the problem.

Research also shows that a student’s family support is a high predictor of success in school.

Aeppli-Campbell says parents can be a tremendous help by simply reading aloud to their children, which helps with phonetic awareness, builds their vocabulary and develops a love for reading.

The community can play a role too, she said, by joining Every Child a Reader in Escambia, Reading is Fundamental, becoming mentors and tutors and donating time and resources to low-performing schools that serve high-poverty students.

Getting parents involved in their child’s learning is the reason the Florida Department of Education created the “Just Take 20” campaign.

It provides K-12 families with practical, easy-to-use reading activities that establish literacy as a lifelong value. Take 20 encourages families to spend 20 minutes a day to integrate reading into their schedule to improve literacy and learning.

“The thing I come back to as a former elementary teacher is that it begins with the simple task of having conversations with that child, talking and reading to him,” Petrie said.

“A lot of parents are intimidated and feel that they don’t know what to do and think they need to some type of strategic instruction, but it’s really quite simple.”

With so much focus on accountability and high-stakes testing, the balance between prevention and intervention is critical for third-grade reading scores.

“Our concept is to focus on early intervention and progress monitoring to produce proficient readers, which is our staple,” Wyrosdick said.

“It’s what we do, it very valuable, and we put a lot of money and resources to make literacy a high priority at those lower grade levels.”