A majority of fourth graders in the United States are still not reading proficiently, according to a “Kids Count” report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.The data show that 80 percent of lower-income fourth graders and 66 percent of all kids are not reading at grade level at the start of fourth grade.
Although reading scores are slightly higher overall when compared with a decade ago, according to the report, Early Reading Proficiency in the United States, two-thirds of all children are not meeting that important benchmark. At the same time, the gap between students from higher- and lower-income families is growing wider, with 17 percent improvement seen among the former group compared to only a 6 percent improvement among their lower-income peers.
“The good news is that all but six states have made progress in improving reading proficiency in the last 10 years,” says Laura Speer, associate director of policy advocacy reform for the foundation. “However, more than 50 percent of kids in every state are not proficient readers by the time they enter fourth grade. New Mexico and Mississippi have the worst outcomes (79 percent) while Massachusetts has the best (53 percent).”
This latest data snapshot compares reading data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress released in November 2013, with data taken from the assessment in 2003 when a majority of states began participating. Despite an improvement over the last decade in reading proficiency in many states, large disparities persist not only among economic classes, but also in certain racial minorities (Black, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native) and their White and Asian peers, according to the snapshot. Dual language learners, who are the driving force behind the country’s demographic change, are among the least likely to hit this important milestone.
“Reading is critical for all children,” says Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the foundation and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “It is unacceptable to have the gap in reading proficiency rates between low-income and high-income children increase by nearly 20 percent over the last decade. We must do more to improve reading proficiency among all kids while focusing attention on children in lower-income families who face additional hurdles of attending schools that have high concentrations of kids living in poverty.”
Previously, the foundation documented in its reports Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and Early Warning Confirmed [PDF] that the need to focus on reading proficiency by the end of third grade as an essential step toward increasing the number of children who succeed academically and do well in life. Research from the reports also found that children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school, are less likely to fall into poverty and are more likely to find a job that can adequately support their families.
“All states need to do whatever it takes to get all kids—especially in populations that are struggling—on track with this milestone,” Smith says. “As the nation continues to become more racially diverse, the low reading-proficiency scores of children of color are deeply concerning for the nation’s long-term prosperity.”
The foundation’s data snapshot also recommends that more be done by stakeholders to increase reading proficiency for low-income children so that they can attain economic security as adults. These include the use of results-driven solutions to transform low-performing schools into high-quality learning environments; making sure that communities are supported to ensure children come to school ready, attend school every day, and maintain and expand their learning during the summer months; and developing a system of early care and education that coordinates what children experience from birth through age eight.