Literacy By Third-Grade A Renewed Priority For Many States

According to a recent report, reading at the proficient level by the end of grade three has taken on a new look:

Flunked, retained, held back. Whatever you call it, increasing numbers of states are not promoting students who are struggling to read at the end of third grade.

Thirty-two states have passed legislation designed to improve third-grade literacy, according to the Education Commission of the States. Retention is part of the policies in 14 states, with some offering more leeway than others.

“Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can’t read is irresponsible – and cruel,” said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in announcing in his recent State of the State address that third-graders should demonstrate an ability to read before being promoted. He also proposed a $12 million program for improving third-graders’ reading skills.

We have known for years that many students enter school one or two years behind their peers in language acquisition. That means that K-3 teachers must help students make two years of progress every year if they are to catch up by third grade. These students need additional learning time before school, after school, on Saturdays, or in year round programs. Unfortunately, some states have turned to retaining students so that when they take the NAEP test, they are a year older than their peers in other states. NAEP scores (Florida) will rise, but the long-term consequences are problematic.

In grades K-3, the focus is on “learning to read.” However, even if students reach proficiency by third grade, those coming from under-resourced homes will need direct explicit literacy instruction every year–“reading to learn”– or those early gains will dissipate.

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