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Study: U.S. students not reading at grade level; Pa. shows improvement

By the Notebook on Feb 12, 2014 01:01 PM
Photo: KIDS COUNT Data Center

by Dan Hampton

Most students in the United States lack the essential reading skills needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive society, according to a report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

The report is an update to the data reported in two earlier Casey Foundation studies – Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and Early Warning Confirmed. Data in those documents indicated that children who read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade are more likely to graduate high school and succeed as adults. The end of 3rd grade is about the time when children move from learning how to read to using reading to learn other subjects.

But according to the foundation’s most recent report – which gathered data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – almost 80 percent of low-income students in the United States and 66 percent of all U.S. students do not read at grade level by 4th grade.

“We must do more to improve reading proficiency among all kids,” said Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the foundation and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

“All states need to do whatever it takes to get all kids – especially in populations that are struggling – on track with this milestone,” he said.

Pennsylvania students rank 11th in the nation in reading proficiency, but more than half of the state’s 4th graders are still not reading at grade level.

There has been some progress in Pennsylvania. Test scores improved 10 percent from 2003 to 2013. In that time, the national average increased by 6 percent.

The study also found large disparities in reading proficiency levels among economic and racial groups.

Nationwide, students from wealthier families improved 17 percent in the last 10 years, while low-income students improved just 6 percent.

Seventy-seven percent of low-income students from Pennsylvania were not reading at grade level last year, compared to 45 percent of high-income students.

Additionally, only about one in five Black, Latino, and American Indian 4th graders were reading at grade level in 2013, significantly less than White and Asian/Pacific Islander children.

To improve academics among these groups, the study recommended regular school attendance, community support, expanded summer learning, and better early care and education.

Smith said that the increasing gap between economic groups is unacceptable.

“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.”

Dan Hampton is an intern at the Notebook.

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Comments (5)

Submitted by Education Grad ... on February 12, 2014 5:31 pm
Here's an essential question: What is grade level? Who decides what is grade level? Teachers, publishers, school districts, the Common Core State Standards? In all this talk about achievement, some people are forgetting that there is a normal distribution of "grade level achievement." There are students who are high achieving, in the middle, and low achieving. This is the case with many phenomena involving people. Why are we expecting every child to be at grade level? That is impossible because children come with various abilities and environments. It's almost like a set up to make certain schools fail, especially for the schools which serve the neediest students.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2014 6:12 pm
That is the picture. The people need to realize what is really going on and demand this to stop.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 12, 2014 6:19 pm
EGS you are exactly right. The misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of "grade level" is just astounding. There is so much misinformation being put out it has become an "institutional illness." It is impossible for any standardized test to accurately measure anyone's instructional reading level. At best all standardized tests are "approximations." A student has at least these reading levels: (1) An independent reading level; (2) A "basic instructional reading level" which is the lowest level where a student has instructional needs. (3) An "immediate instructional level" which is the highest level at which a student can be instructed at without becoming "frustrated." (4) A "frustrational level" where a student can not comprehend what he reads, or, can not read fluently enough to comprehend. In addition every student has an "instructional range" of levels at which a student can benefit from instruction; eg 2-3, 4-6, etc. In addition everyone has a "hearing capacity" at which level they can understand what is read to them. An assessment of reading level takes into cognizance the "comprehension level," AND, the oral reading ability which takes into account "fluency." That can never be measured by a standardized test. You need a living, breathing, well educated "teacher" to assess reading level. The only use of a standardized test in that realm is to "screen students" and see if a student is significantly below -- "the Norm." those students should be referred to a competent reading specialist, special ed teacher, or grade teacher who understands his or her craft. As students progress through the grades the "range of reading levels" in all classrooms expands wider and wider. And also, "grade level equivalents" are not "reading levels." they are the Bell Curve broken down statistically.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on February 12, 2014 8:51 pm
Rich, Reading is too complex of a process to measure with one standardized test score. Learning in any area is too complex to measure with a standardized test. A holistic approach of curriculum based assessments, portfolios of work, and yes, standardized test scores provides a more holistic picture of a child's learning. But are "reformers" willing to spend the money to provide more accurate, holistic assessment systems? Or are they content to let the measures show what they show because it benefits the reformers' agendas. I think we know the answer to that. EGS
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 13, 2014 8:55 am
Yes, It is too complex a process to be measured with any single standardized test. I have never seen a standardized reading test without flaw, and I can not conceive of any way to create one which is not flawed in some respect. There are just too many variables However, a well constructed test can yield approximations which can be used to draw valid discussion points. The NAEP is in my eyes is the most valid assessment being use. As opposed with the PSSA's which have always been the worst standardized tests I have ever been forced to use. It is important to realize that the classifications used today of below basic, basic, proficient and advanced are, in reality, "arbitrary classifications" and are not the same from test to test or state to state.

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