Third-Grade Literacy: A Key Dropout Indicator

literacyWhat makes education so powerful is its ability to build on what came before it. Curriculum is carefully designed to align with child development and to move towards greater complexity and depth in every subject. For this reason—and as many advocates claim—education begins the moment a child is born. Each development stage requires the right amount of input and experiences in order to move onto the next. Early childhood education is every bit as important as high school biology. Each step is necessary for the ultimate goal: graduation.

Likewise, dropping out of school is not something that happens suddenly or on a whim. It is often the culmination of a long line of challenges and struggles within the education process where a critical step was missed, making all the following grades a challenge. If this is combined with poverty and other barriers out of the student’s control—the cycle becomes clear.

A pivotal year for all students and their future success is the third grade. While third grade is not an absolute dividing line, there is plenty of research and evidence that shows children around this age begin to develop significant reading skills. A profound cognitive shift begins to take place as children move beyond recognizing letters and understanding words to a fuller comprehension of the text.  A common refrain is that children “learn to read” until the third grade. After the third grade, children begin to “read to learn.” Reading, then, becomes the foundation of all future education.

In fact, one study, Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, showed that children who are falling behind in reading have greater chances of dropping out later. This study found that students “who do not read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers”. What makes this so alarming is that this only describes students who are not proficient. Students who were significantly behind are six times more likely to leave school early and not graduate. The study concludes that a student who is behind in their reading and living in poverty face enormous odds towards graduation. For these students, failing to graduate rose to 35 percent compared to 16 percent.

In Colorado, the 2016 Kids Count report states“…58 percent of all fourth-graders were reading below  grade level in 2015, according to the CMAS [Colorado Measures of Academic Success] English language arts assessment”. In the report, a map shows that rural communities along the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the state have the highest levels of students not at grade level.

The 2016 Kids Count also shows a concerning association with reading level and income. Citing results from the National Assessment of Education Progress, the report describes, “The income-based achievement gap in Colorado is widening over time. Between 2003 and 2015, the gap in reading proficiency levels between low-income and higher-income students grew by 27 percent.”

Taking both of these things into account suggests enormous consequences for the future of Colorado. Yet there is still time and fortunately the issue is clearly understood by people within the education system. Former Lt. Governor Joe Garcia did a tremendous job bringing the issue to the forefront and amazing programming has emerged, most notably the Colorado Reading Corps program.

While third grade seems really far away for a program like ours, which works with students who have left school as teenagers, we recognize that making sure a student’s reading skills are at grade level or higher is one of the best dropout-prevention approaches. It’s ideal to keep students moving forward with their studies by providing the right support at the right time.