More than one in four public school students in Virginia aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade as results on the critical state test continue to slide.
Scores on the third-grade reading Standards of Learning test in the state fell for the third straight year, down from a 76% pass rate in the 2015-16 school year to 71% this year, according to data released last week by the Virginia Department of Education. The test, experts and studies have concluded, is an important — but not definitive — predictor of students’ future academic success.
“School divisions must ensure that all children receive research-based reading instruction — beginning in kindergarten — that addresses their specific needs, and that students are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade,” Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a statement. “We must meet students where they are, but we must also move them to where they need to be: reading at grade level or above and ready for success in the 21st century.”
The data release, which also showed persistent achievement gaps among minority and low-income students, comes as the state Board of Education reviews the state’s requirements for schools, a process that could end up mandating more reading specialists in schools.
Why is third-grade reading so important?
When students come to kindergarten, their general reading development starts by learning the basics— turning pages, reading left to right and learning letters, for example. Then comes first grade, where they are identifying words. In second grade, they’re reading longer and more complex words.
The big moment in a child’s reading ability comes in third grade when they make the switch from learning to read to reading to learn. Once students start fourth grade, studies suggest, as much as half of what they’re being taught will be incomprehensible if they’re not proficient at the end of third grade.
Research has repeatedly drawn a connection between poor reading performance on the third-grade level and a failure to graduate high school on time.
“If you’re a poor reader early on, you tend to stay a poor reader,” said Tim Shanahan, the former director of reading for Chicago Public Schools and chair of the National Literacy Panel for English Minority Children and Youth, and the National Early Literacy Panel. “It really is a serious problem.
“It’s important we get reading right for kids.”
The drop in third-grade reading scores is part of a broader decline in reading results across the state.
The scores on all reading tests dipped 2 percentage points over the past three years, from 80% in 2015-16 to 78% this year, according to the data released last week.
“I do think that’s cause for concern,” said Paul Thomas, an education professor at Furman University who taught English in South Carolina, of the third-grade decline. “Three years in a row, there’s something going on.”
Thomas teaches classes on literacy research and practice, as well as one on the foundations of literacy instruction.
The issue of not reading on grade level is especially stark among black and Hispanic students.
While 71% of all third-graders pass the reading test, only 57% of black students and 55% of Hispanic students do, the data show. It’s worse for students who are learning English; only two in five pass the exam.
Students whom the state describes as being eligible for free or reduced meals, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money are 14% less likely to pass the third-grade reading test than their peers.
Nationally, more than 80% of students from low-income families don’t read proficiently at the end of third grade, according to federal data.
“Kids are being left behind,” said Shanahan, who now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We all lose in it.”
The trend of declining literacy is also present in local schools.
Third-grade students in the Richmond region scored below the state average on the reading test, with 69% of students passing. That’s a 2.5 percentage point decrease compared to 2017-18 and a nearly 7 percentage point drop from three years ago, when more than three in four students in the region passed.
Petersburg has seen the biggest falloff in the past three years as only one in two third-graders is passing the test now, compared with 65% in 2015-16.
“Our SOL scores are not what we were hoping to achieve,” said the district’s incoming superintendent, Maria Pitre-Martin, in a statement last week.
Petersburg and Richmond have the lowest pass rates in the region at 50%.
Richmond schools chief Jason Kamras said he was “disappointed” by the reading scores.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “We need to continue to build momentum, week by week, month by month, year by year.”
The school district is adopting new reading curriculum this year, and part of its strategic plan is to have every third-grader reading on grade level, which includes the launch of a “Literacy Institute” for school leaders.
That part of the district’s strategic plan has a projected cost of $10 million.
The cities weren’t alone, though. Every district in the region has seen its pass rate on the test decline.
Henrico County’s scores are down to 70% from 75% three years ago and 77% two years ago, putting it almost directly in line with the state’s decline.
The district, spokesman Andy Jenks said, has hired five more reading specialists for the coming school year and plans to put reading specialists in every elementary school over the next five years.
“We’ve also developed a new K-2 curriculum, implemented during the 2018-19 school year, with a strong emphasis on building foundational skills in concepts of print, phonological awareness [how sounds work] and phonics,” Jenks said. “A strong foundation develops strong word recognition and opens the door for reading comprehension, which is the focus of third-grade reading and beyond.”
Third through fifth grades in Henrico will be implementing a new English Language Arts curriculum this school year, he added.
Schools in Chesterfield and Hanover counties both had pass rates above the state average, but still saw a slight decline this year.
The lowest pass rate in the area was at Richmond’s Fairfield Court Elementary School, where only 1 in 10 third-grade students passed the reading test. The highest was at Chesterfield’s Bettie Weaver Elementary School (97%).
What can be done?
A 2015 study from the Center for Public Education found that one in six children who aren’t reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate that’s four times higher than that for proficient readers.
“It’s predictive, but we can disrupt predictions,” Shanahan said.
Thomas, the Furman professor, said the issue can be addressed by tackling what’s going on outside of school in a student’s life and to have them read more.
“The most important thing for literacy development is access to books,” he said. “If we spent money on giving children’s books to take home instead of on testing them, their achievement would go up.”
He added that confronting food insecurity — an issue common in Virginia as one in six children in the state live in families that struggle with hunger, according to a national nonprofit — could help as well.
Lane, Virginia’s public schools leader, said state Education Department staff will work with districts to improve reading skills, an effort that will include looking at what schools that didn’t see drops are doing and replicating that.
“The reading results underscore the importance of the Board of Education’s current discussion about promoting equity — providing the assistance students need when they need it — by including early reading intervention in the Standards of Quality,” said Board of Education President Daniel Gecker in a statement. “This would provide a dedicated state funding stream for reading specialists in elementary schools based in part on the percentage of students not reading on grade level by the end of the third grade.”
School systems in Virginia are currently required to intervene with students who do not meet specific benchmarks on diagnostic tests. The Standards of Quality — the requirements from the state that must be met by every school and district — do not mandate that school systems provide reading specialists.
Those standards, which are revised every two years, currently recommend that one reading specialist be in every elementary school at the discretion of the local school board.
The state Board of Education is currently reviewing the Standards of Quality and will make recommendations to the General Assembly, which has the power to actually change them.
Charles Pyle, the spokesman for the Education Department, said the board plans to submit its recommendations for the 2020 General Assembly session.