Study says more students struggling with reading at end of pivotal third grade

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Nearly two-thirds of students in Virginia and Maryland do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade, a pivotal milestone when material becomes more complex and children are more likely to slip behind, according to a national report released Tuesday.

The report, "Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters", highlights links between early literacy and high school graduation rates and future economic success.

"The concern about reading is reaching a critical point," said Ralph Smith, executive vice president for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which released the report. "Our ability to compete in a global economy is severely compromised if we don't improve these literacy rates."

The Baltimore-based foundation aims to focus attention on this chronic problem and to capitalize on momentum created by national reform efforts, such as the push for stronger, uniform learning standards, as well as federal funding for initiatives meant to improve teacher quality, Smith said.

It maps out an aggressive strategy for improving the abilities of young readers that includes improving access to early-childhood education, creating more summer learning opportunities and reducing chronic absences.

Sixty-two percent of Virginia fourth-graders and 63 percent of Maryland fourth-graders scored below proficient on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the nation's report card. Proficiency rates on less rigorous state tests tend to be higher.

Public school children in both states fared better than the national average of 68 percent below proficient. Minority children and those living in poverty were much less likely to be proficient readers.

Susan B. Neuman, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in early-literacy development, said it's a key time to raise awareness. Foundation and federal funding have been drained in recent years from some established early-reading initiatives. And unemployment and poverty are growing, setting more children up for learning challenges.

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