Reading by the End of Third Grade Declared a National Priority

Jeffersontown, KY – Sixty-four percent of Kentucky children in public schools are not proficient in reading, compared to 67 percent nationwide, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The Annie E. Casey Foundation and a range of partners are focusing attention on the critical importance of achieving grade-level reading proficiency for all children by the end of third grade. The ability to read is central to a child’s success in school, life-long earning potential, and ability to contribute to the nation’s economy and its security.

This new national emphasis on reading success is introduced by a special KIDS COUNT report, Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters, and is supported by a broad coalition, including America’s Promise Alliance, Mission: Readiness, and the United Way.

“Learning to read by the end of third grade is the most important predictor of success for children,” said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. “If children have not learned to read by that time, they will be unable to read to learn in the upper elementary and secondary grades.”

Up until the end of third grade, children are learning to read. At the beginning of fourth grade they begin reading to learn, using their skills to gain more information in all subjects, to think critically about what they are learning, and to act upon and share that knowledge in the world around them.

“The fourth grade reading measure serves as a dashboard indicator for two things; how well our early childhood providers and preschools have prepared our students and how likely it is that they will graduate from high school,” said Terry Brooks, Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “If we wait until middle or high school to evaluate whether our children are on track to graduate on time, we have waited too long.”

The National Research Council affirms that high school graduation can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade.

Kentucky children who do not graduate from high school are more likely than those who do to be arrested or have a child while still a teenager, both of which incur additional financial and social costs. Kentucky’s citizens would benefit by approximately $671,898 over the lifetime of each additional graduate in the form of increased earnings, economic growth, and cost avoidance.

Although NAEP scores have shown incremental increases over the past 15 years for most students across the nation, disparities in reading achievement persist across economic, racial and ethnic groups. Students of color and students from families living in poverty are more likely to attend under-resourced schools with fewer academic opportunities and poorer teacher quality. The share of low-income Black, Hispanic, and Native American students who score below proficient on the NAEP reading test is much higher (89 percent, 87 percent, and 85 percent, respectively) than the share of low-income white or Asian/Pacific Islander students (76 percent and 70 percent).

A host of issues and challenges contribute to students falling behind the reading curve, and failing to graduate from high school. For the most vulnerable kids and families, these challenges begin at birth and include poor health or nutrition, limited access to high-quality early childhood and preschool programs, language barriers and lack of adequate parental supervision. For others, the problem might be due to chronic absenteeism from school, summer learning loss, or low-performing schools.

Some Kentucky children face additional challenges from birth. In 2007, 9.3 percent of all children born in the Commonwealth were of low birth weight compared to 8.2 percent nationally. These babies, who are more likely to be born to low-income mothers because of limited access to early and regular prenatal care, are at greater risk than normal weight babies for neurodevelopmental problems, behavior problems, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – all of which can interfere with learning and school success. They are also 34 percent less likely to graduate from high school by age 19, even when compared to siblings raised in the same environment.

The challenges continue between birth and kindergarten. The Kentucky Preschool Program currently serves 4-year-old children living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level and 3- and 4-year-old children with disabilities. While this eligibility criteria is broader than those of Head Start, many more Kentucky children would benefit by extending eligibility to very low-income 3-year olds and to all 3- and 4-year old children living between 150 to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2008, 41 percent of children ages 3 to 5 in Kentucky were not enrolled in nursery school, preschool, or kindergarten.

“Metro United Way is fully committed to working with national, state and local partners to help our children achieve their full potential,” said Mary Kate Poling, Senior Vice President of Community Impact with Metro United Way. “For today’s youth to succeed in school we must intervene early and support them through challenges at every level. Kentucky’s kids are guaranteed to benefit and so will our community.”

Recognizing these and other challenges, the Casey Foundation’s Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters has identified four steps to close the gap and raise the bar:

  1. Develop a coherent system of early care and education that aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through third grade so children are ready to take on the learning tasks associated with fourth grade and beyond.
  2. Encourage and enable parents, families, and caregivers to play their indispensable roles as co-producers of good outcomes for their children.
  3. Prioritize, support, and invest in results-driven initiatives to transform low-performing schools into high-quality teaching and learning environments in which all children, including those from low-income families and high-poverty neighborhoods, are present, engaged, and educated to high standards.
  4. Develop and utilize solutions to two of the most significant contributors to the under-achievement of children from low-income families—chronic absence from school and summer learning loss.

“We are committed to making sure every child is ready to learn when they arrive at school, cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically,” said Robert C. Reifsnyder, President of United Way of Greater Cincinnati – serving Northern Kentucky. “We must begin at birth, ensuring our babies are healthy, and we must then ensure all children have access to quality early childhood programs including home visitation, child care and preschools programs.”

View the complete report at