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Third Grade Reading Skills - A Benchmark Gains Ground in MA

July 5, 2011

BOSTON - Third-grade reading skills are becoming an education benchmark, in light of numerous studies that show proficiency at that point is linked to the likelihood of high school graduation.

The superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country recently signed a contract where he'll be judged by the reading performance of third-graders. The Los Angeles superintendent is the first in the country being held to that standard, which is increasingly being viewed as a school improvement measure in Massachusetts.

Ralph Smith, executive vice president of The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is a partner in a grade-level reading campaign, explains why what happens in third grade is getting so much attention.

"What we know is that 74 percent of children who fail to reach this benchmark will never catch up, and are on a pathway to dropping out of high school."

Smith adds that most children not reading at grade level come from low-income households, although test scores in Massachusetts show that more-affluent families are affected, too.

Margaret Blood, founder and president of Strategies for Children in Boston, says her organization has been working to raise awareness about the importance of reading skills by the end of third grade. She offers this insight about Massachusetts.

"The good news is, Massachusetts has the highest score in the nation; and the bad news is, in Massachusetts, only 47 percent of our children read on grade level in fourth grade."

Massachusetts is often touted for its high school graduation rates, but Blood says the third grade reading skills benchmark is gaining ground in school improvement discussions.

"You know, it almost makes no sense to look at high school graduation if you're not also focusing on what's happening in third grade, because that third grade test score is going to be a key predictor for how likely that child is to graduate."

Blood says one of the challenges in getting more children reading at grade level is that the learning curve starts long before they enter kindergarten, so families and communities need more resources to make sure the youngest children are on the right track.

Links to studies about third-grade reading benchmarks are at www.gradelevelreading.net. Massachusetts grade level reading statistics from the National Assn. of Educational Progress are at nces.ed.gov

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MA