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Report: Third Grade Can Predict a Child's Success in School

Photo: NC Early Childhood Foundation is working to build on early childhood education programs in the state. Courtesy: NC Early Childhood Foundation
Photo: NC Early Childhood Foundation is working to build on early childhood education programs in the state. Courtesy: NC Early Childhood Foundation
November 4, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C. - Third grade is the make-or-break point when it comes to a child's success, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and a majority of children are missing the mark. The new analysis found that only 36 percent of third graders are on track with cognitive development.

In North Carolina, funding for early care and learning programs such as Smart Start and pre-K has decreased by $101 million since 2009.

Tracy Zimmerman, director of strategic communications, North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, explained why third grade is so crucial.

"Children really go from learning to read to reading to learn. What we know about third grade now is that where you are in third grade is a significant predictor of your future academic achievement," she said.

Currently the North Carolina Supreme Court is considering arguments in a case that will decide if the state must pay for preschool for at-risk students. If the court decides it is an obligation of the state, that could require North Carolina to accommodate 60,000 children at a cost of $300 million annually.

In addition to early learning, the report finds that social and emotional skills also help secure success for children. Laura Speer with the Annie E. Casey Foundation said enabling parents to expand their involvement in their children's lives can help foster that skill set.

"Having the flexible work schedule - it's so important. Also things like providing paid sick leave for parents could make a huge, huge difference," Speer said.

Policy recommendations from the report include programs to support parents so they can care and provide for their children, increase access to early childhood education for low-income children and develop programs that support a child's transition to elementary school.

The achievement gap between low-income children also is pronounced when it comes to early childhood education: Only 19 percent of children below 200 percent of the poverty level have age-appropriate cognitive skills by third grade. Zimmerman said closing the gap requires an "all hands on deck" approach.

"There really is no silver bullet. To really move the needle on the achievement gap, we need to start looking at the root causes and come together across organizations," Zimmerman said.

Research indicates that the first 2,000 days of a child's life - from birth to age 3 - are the foundation for their future success, she added.

The report is available from the Casey Foundation at

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC