Students Who Don’t Read Well in Third Grade Are More Likely to Drop Out or Fail to Finish High School

Posted April 8, 2011
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Newsrelease doublejoupardy 2011

Stu­dents who don’t read pro­fi­cient­ly by third grade are four times more like­ly to leave high school with­out a diplo­ma than pro­fi­cient read­ers, accord­ing to a study over time of near­ly 4,000 stu­dents nationally.

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; if they read poor­ly, too, the rate is six times greater than that for all pro­fi­cient read­ers, the study found. For black and Lati­no stu­dents, the com­bined effect of pover­ty and poor third grade read­ing skills makes the rate eight times greater.

Pover­ty trou­bles even the best read­ers: Pro­fi­cient third graders who have lived in pover­ty grad­u­ate at about the same rate as sub­par read­ers who have nev­er been poor.

We will nev­er close the achieve­ment gap, we will nev­er solve our dropout cri­sis, we will nev­er break the cycle of pover­ty that afflicts so many chil­dren if we don’t make sure that all our stu­dents learn to read,” said Ralph Smith, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, which com­mis­sioned the report, Dou­ble Jeop­ardy: How Pover­ty & Third-Grade Read­ing Skills Influ­ence High School Grad­u­a­tion. This research con­firms the com­pelling need to address the under­ly­ing issues that keep chil­dren from reading.”

The lon­gi­tu­di­nal study by Don­ald J. Her­nan­dez, released today at the nation­al Edu­ca­tion Writ­ers Asso­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence in New Orleans, con­firms 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 study relies on a unique nation­al data­base of 3,975 stu­dents born between 1979 and 1989. The children’s par­ents were sur­veyed every two years to deter­mine the family’s eco­nom­ic sta­tus and oth­er fac­tors, while the children’s read­ing progress was tracked using the Peabody Indi­vid­ual Achieve­ment Test (PIAT) Read­ing Recog­ni­tion sub­test. The data­base reports whether stu­dents have fin­ished high school by age 19, but does not indi­cate whether they actu­al­ly dropped out.

For pur­pos­es of this study, the researchers divid­ed the chil­dren into three read­ing groups which cor­re­spond to the skill lev­els used in the Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Progress (NAEP): pro­fi­cient, basic and below basic. The chil­dren were also sep­a­rat­ed into three income cat­e­gories: those who have nev­er been poor, those who spent some time in pover­ty and those who have lived more than half the years sur­veyed in poverty.

Most of the stu­dents in the sam­ple man­aged to fin­ish high school by the time they were 19. But for stu­dents who did not, the rates were high­est among those who didn’t read well in third grade and those who have lived in pover­ty. Black and His­pan­ic stu­dents, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in both those cat­e­gories, were twice as like­ly as sim­i­lar white chil­dren not to grad­u­ate on time.

Specif­i­cal­ly, the study 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% of these chil­dren drop out or fail to fin­ish high school on time, com­pared to 9% of chil­dren with basic read­ing skills and 4% 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% of chil­dren who have lived in pover­ty do not grad­u­ate from high school, com­pared to 6% of those who have nev­er been poor. This ris­es to 32% 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%. The rate was high­est for poor black and His­pan­ic stu­dents, at 31 and 33% 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% still didn’t fin­ish high school. That com­pares to 9% of sub­par third graders who were nev­er poor.
  • Among chil­dren who nev­er lived in pover­ty, all but 2% of the best third-grade read­ers grad­u­at­ed from high school on time.

These find­ings sug­gest we need to work in three are­nas: improv­ing the schools where these chil­dren are learn­ing to read, help­ing the fam­i­lies weighed down by pover­ty and encour­ag­ing bet­ter fed­er­al, state and local pol­i­cy to improve the lot of both schools and fam­i­lies,” said Her­nan­dez, a soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Hunter Col­lege and the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, City Uni­ver­si­ty and a senior advi­sor to the Foun­da­tion for Child Development.

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.

Casey is a mem­ber of The Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Read­ing, a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort by more than 70 foun­da­tions and advo­ca­cy groups to move the nee­dle on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy. The Cam­paign calls for an inte­grat­ed approach start­ing at birth and ensur­ing chil­dren devel­op the social, emo­tion­al and aca­d­e­m­ic skills need­ed to read by third grade. Third grade is con­sid­ered a piv­ot point in edu­ca­tion, where chil­dren shift from learn­ing to read and begin read­ing to learn.

Nation­al­ly, two thirds of stu­dents are not read­ing on grade lev­el by the fourth grade, the ear­li­est year of test­ing in the Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Progress (NAEP). That pro­por­tion ris­es to four-fifths for low-income chil­dren, accord­ing to NAEP results released last year. A pre­vi­ous Casey report pro­vides a state-by-state break­down of fourth-graders who weren’t read­ing on grade level. 

In addi­tion to the Casey Foun­da­tion, the research was con­duct­ed with sup­port from the Cen­ter for Demo­graph­ic Analy­sis at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Albany and the Foun­da­tion for Child Devel­op­ment and the guid­ance of the staff of the Nation­al Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Sur­vey of Youth.

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