Test Score Progress in Third Grade Disappoints

Progress in Reading Slower Than Math and Achievement Gaps Persist

While we were thrilled by the overall gains DC students have made on this year’s DC-CAS test, we wanted to take a closer look at third grade. This exploration follows our previous policy brief, Third Grade Proficiency in DC – Little Progress (2007-2011). Third grade proficiency is a crucial benchmark in part because it is the first time DC tests all public school students, and it underscores the importance of the early childhood programs that lead up to it. 

Proficiency among DC Third Grade Students

 The chart above shows the percentage of third grade students scoring proficient or advanced on the DC-CAS over the past three years. As I mentioned in my last blog, proficiency rates are only one way to measure academic progress, but they can be useful for understanding overall changes. Math proficiency rates have clearly made a significant jump this year from 2011 and 2012, whereas reading scores have fluctuated over time.

Achievement Gap

An important factor to address when gauging school progress is the achievement gap between black and white third grade students. Unfortunately, from our preliminary analysis, this persistent gap does not appear to be closing.

Percentages of Black and White Third Grade Students Scoring Proficient or Advanced on the DC-CAS (2011 vs. 2013)

In the chart above, we see that, although proficiency among both black and white students improved in math, the achievement gap remains virtually the same, whereas in reading, proficiency among white students increased while proficiency among black students changed little. There is an important caveat to these results: in the 2013 dataset for the DC-CAS, subgroups, including race/ethnic groups, with fewer than 25 students per school per grade were omitted due to small sample size. As a consequence of omitting small subgroups of students for school accountability purposes, some students’ performance may not be well represented in these data. For example, this dataset makes it seem like there are no special education students in the third grade in DC. More likely, there are no schools with more than 25 special education students in the third grade. Their scores are reported towards the district total, but not broken out by grade and school.

Children from Low Income Families

Because 1 in 3 DC children live in poverty, the future prosperity of our city is shaped in large part by their early achievement and later success in life.  That is why the performance of students from low-income families is a crucial indicator for school performance.

Proficiency rates for third grade students from low-income families (2011 vs. 2013)

Progress among third grade students from low-income families was significant in math (7 percentage points), but reading proficiency changed little from two years ago. Math and reading proficiency among children from low-income families is now nearly equal.


In all three of these charts, progress in reading proficiency seems to be slower than in math. Making progress in early reading proficiency can be a particular challenge for schools because so much of a young child’s language development occurs outside the school environment, in their homes and neighborhoods. One effective response may be for schools and policymakers to partner with community based organizations and libraries to expand reading development opportunities outside of school time: afterschool, in the summer and at home.

The spotlight on third grade scores yields mixed results – there has been some progress, especially in math, but the same problems linger, especially the achievement gap. This does not come as much of a surprise – last week’s summary results showed the largest improvements and the highest levels of proficiency in this year’s DC-CAS are concentrated in middle school grades. Why are more students scoring well in later grades? Could schools apply the same principles earlier, and if so, how much higher would proficiency rates, graduation rates, and other markers of student success be overall?

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