It's a well-known concept in education circles: Children learn to read from preschool through third grade. After third grade, they read to learn.
In recent years, the focus on third-grade reading proficiency has intensified to the point where more than 30 states have policies targeting third-grade reading, with about a dozen of those states allowing school districts to retain students in third grade, rather than promoting them to fourth grade, if they do not hit reading proficiency targets. Pennsylvania is not among them.
That information comes from a report on third-grade reading released earlier this month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The report, "Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third Grade Reading," solidifies research from a 2010 Casey report that documented the strong link between third-grade reading proficiency and high school graduation.
It shows that children who were not proficient at reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out than those who are proficient readers by that point.
Research in the Casey report performed by Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, further showed that children who live in poverty and aren't proficient readers are at even more risk of dropping out of high school. Twenty-six percent of children who were poor for at least one year and were not proficient readers failed to graduate, he concluded.
The numbers are worse for poor African-American and Hispanic students. About 31 percent of African-American students and 33 percent of Hispanic students who were poor and not proficient readers did not graduate from high school.
"Many people don't understand the predictability of the third-grade proficiency," said Sari Brecosky, director of reading achievement at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
"Up until third grade, really the middle of third grade, the purpose of language is relatively small with what students have to have mastered as far as spelling patterns and the composition of sentences. But in the second half of third grade and increasingly more and more as you move up the grades, sentences become much longer, and they are more dense," he said.
Ginny Hunt, assistant superintendent in the Clairton School District, said students who have difficulty reading in third grade are not able to comprehend material they need for other subjects as they move to higher grades. "If you are not reading on grade level in third grade, there is a big gap in your ability to gain information in subjects like math and science," she said.
In Pennsylvania, the upcoming School Performance Profiles, which will be released for districts in the coming months, will include a measure of the number of third-grade students who are proficient in reading, according to Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education. That measure, based on third-grade scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, will "provide schools with information on where to focus instructional resources to improve student achievement," Mr. Eller wrote in an email.
He said the department intends for the focus on third-grade reading proficiency to prompt districts to pay attention to the issue.
The Casey report talks about the controversy over state policies that allow students to be retained in third grade if they are not proficient readers, noting that opponents of the practice say holding a student back does more damage to a child's academic success and social and emotional development than poor reading skills.
The report said that third-grade reading tests are helpful in that they bring attention to the issue, but that "evidence is not strong enough" to support retaining non-proficient readers in third grade.
Mrs. Hunt worked for 33 years in Texas, where students have faced third-grade retention tests based on reading proficiency since the early 2000s. She said while she isn't in favor of holding a student back for an academic year based on reading scores, the system forced educators to address reading proficiency from the earliest grades.
She believes the focus on third-grade reading scores in the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile could produce similar results.
"I agree with this. It makes everybody try harder. If you get the kids reading by third grade, their life will be 100 percent easier," Mrs. Hunt said.
While the state doesn't break out third-grade reading scores on the annual PSSA exams, it provides scores for the range of grades 3-5. Allegheny County districts that had the worst high school graduation rates also had some of the lowest proficiency rates in grades 3-5 in reading.
On the flip side, of the 43 school districts in Allegheny County, more than half both exceeded the state targets for reading proficiency and had graduation rates above 90 percent.
Clairton is among the districts in Allegheny County whose graduation rate and elementary reading test scores fall in line with the research findings in the Casey report.
In Clairton, where the 2012 graduation rate was 76.62 percent, just 34.6 percent of its students scored proficient or above in reading in grades 3-5.
Mrs. Hunt said the district has put numerous improvement measures in place, including aligning all reading curriculum in grades K-2 to make sure all teachers are teaching the same concepts, placing "word walls" in classrooms and encouraging teachers to "read a lot of books and expose students to lots of literature."
Mrs. Hunt and Ms. Brecosky said students from low-income areas often start school with vocabularies that are much smaller than students from middle-class or upper-middle-class homes because they have not had the same exposure to reading or the same life experiences as their wealthier counterparts. Filling that deficit is part of the process to improve their reading skills.
Other districts that show the pattern described in the Casey report are Wilkinsburg, which had a 2012 graduation rate of 53.49 percent and just 35.4 percent of the students in grade 3-5 scoring proficient or above in reading, and Sto-Rox, where 73.15 percent graduated and 38.5 percent of its students in grades 3-5 scored proficient or above in reading in 2012.
In the McKeesport Area School District, where the 2012 graduation rate was 54.61 percent and 47.3 percent of the students in grades 3-5 scored proficient or above in reading, efforts already are under way to improve elementary reading and produce proficient third-grade readers, said Harry Bauman, K-12 curriculum and transformation coordinator.
In recent years, the district has ramped up reading programs, starting in its pre-K programs and has even made efforts to reach families with children younger than 3.
Working through family centers that reach out to needy families in the McKeesport Area, the school district invites families to literacy programs and activities and works with parents to teach them the importance of reading to their children.
For the second summer, the district is operating a five-week summer literacy family program. Children from preschool to fourth grade come once a week with parents to various locations in the community for interactive, literacy-based activities.
"We know there is a challenge to get the kids reading proficiently by third grade, and we know that we have to start with very young children," Mr. Bauman said.
In addition, the district, for the past two years, has used state Keystones to Opportunity grants of $529,260 in 2011-12 and $455,905 in 2012-13 to enhance the elementary reading program.
The 2010 Casey report on the link between third-grade reading proficiency and future academic success spurred the formation of the national organization Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which is working with 124 communities, including Pittsburgh, on providing community support to school districts to improve third-grade reading proficiency.
Locally, the program is headed by the United Way of Allegheny County, which is working with 30 school districts on the Hi!5 effort to get children enrolled in kindergarten on time and to provide transition programs for parents and students before school starts.
"Before, we were hearing stories that on the first day of school, 12 kids would show up for kindergarten, and by November, they would have 60 kids. Now schools are reporting that they have 80-90 percent registration for the start of school," said Joe Welsh, the United Way's manager for community impact.
The United Way is partnering with about a dozen community organizations that deal with early childhood issues, education and literacy.
In addition, about 12 school districts are working with the United Way to come up with a uniform assessment for students as they enter kindergarten that will measure skills such as letter identification to see which students may need extra help. The United Way and its partners are also looking for 4,000 volunteer reading mentors to place in local schools.
"I think we've got tons of good people in Allegheny County committed to this cause and making a difference for the kids. Focusing on this cause really can make a difference in the long term as kids get further down the line in middle schools and high schools," Mr. Welsh said.
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com; 412-263-1590.