Third Grade: A Turning Point for Student Success

Did you know that students who do not achieve reading proficiency by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who do? Do you have any ideas about how we can address this critical educational challenge for all of our city’s children?  

Last week the DC Action team attended Turning Point for Kids: Our Decisions, America's Future, a joint conference for Voices for America’s Children members and KIDS COUNT grantees of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The first conference session I attended was an update from the Campaign For Grade Level Reading, where I heard from other groups advocating for third grade literacy in their states. I am excited to share what I learned at the session and preview data I am analyzing on third grade reading in D.C. So consider this a sneak preview of work we will release later this year!  

Being able to read by the third grade is an important transition point for students. We like to say that’s when they stop learning to read and start reading to learn. If a student is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, they’ll likely fall behind in other subjects.  After all, how can a student learn 6th grade science if she can’t read the text book?

Children from low-income families are much less likely to read at grade level than other students, which is why the Campaign for Grade Level Reading has set this goal: By 2020 a dozen or more states will increase by at least 100% the number of children in poverty who are reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Some states are already taking action. This year, for example, Connecticut pledged $2.7 million for a new program to promote early literacy.

So where does D.C. stand on third grade reading? As of 2011 among all public school students, including charter schools:

•    42% of third graders scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the D.C. reading assessment. That’s only 1 percentage point more than 2007.
•    More than two-thirds of  third grade students from low-income families were not proficient in reading.
•    About 40% of black and Hispanic third graders were proficient, while proficiency among white students was nearly 90%

According to the DC Public Schools Strategic Plan, “A Capital Commitment,” DCPS aims to have 70% of students reading proficiently by 2017. We have a long way to go, but with community-centered investments in early education and stronger support systems for students and their parents, it is possible.

This is just a first look at the data. In a policy brief to be released later this year, DC Action will look comprehensively at reading and math scores, analyze differences in third grade performance among neighborhoods and make recommendations about the most effective investments in D.C. third grade success. So stay tuned!


[1] Hernandez, D. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Poverty and Third Grade Reading Skills Effect High School Graduation. Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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