Third grade emerges as key to student success

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 1 2013 1:50 p.m. MST

Elizabeth Gallegos and Aubrey Aguila laugh as they work on a writing assignment in Ms. Bergen's third-grade class at Bennion Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — By the third grade, students are expected to be reading to learn, not learning to read.

But with a troubling number of students failing to meet that expectation, the third grade has emerged as ground zero for educational reform and student improvement.

In Utah, third-grade scores are a key component of the state's educational goals, and nationally, states have passed legislation geared toward third-grade proficiency and more and more are looking toward the controversial option of holding back students who underperform.

Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the results of a multiyear study, in which a cohort of students was tracked to observe the connection between elementary proficiency and high school graduation. The study found that 88 percent of the students who failed to graduate tested below proficiency in reading in the third grade.

Matthew Ladner, senior adviser of policy and research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, recently shared the results of that study with guests of the Parents for Choice in Education's annual symposium. He said the research is clear that targeting literacy at a young age is key to academic success later on.

"In a very real sense you have a literary window," Ladner said. "If you miss that window of opportunity, it becomes progressively harder to pick it up later."

The concept has not gone unnoticed in Utah, where graduation rates — particularly those of minority students — are among the worst in the nation, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Gov. Gary Herbert's budget recommendations, released last month, include $10 million for the continuation and improvement of early intervention programs. The state's Prosperity 2020 education goal — which calls for two-thirds of adults holding some form of post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020 — also includes a charge that 90 percent of third-grade students score proficiently in math and language arts.

Currently, 43 percent of Utah's adults hold a degree or certificate, 76 percent of seniors graduate from high school and 79 percent of third-graders score proficiently in language arts.

Other initiatives in the state have also targeted childhood proficiency. The United Way of Utah and Utah Valley University recently launched a partnership aimed at improving literacy and numeracy in Utah County, where roughly 30 percent of third-grade students test below grade level.

Legislative action

In the Legislature, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, plans to present a bill that would establish a statewide high-quality preschool program for at-risk children — based on a successful Granite School District model — and education officials are moving ahead with implementing computer adaptive testing, which will provide more precise data for tracking student performance.

At its November meeting, the Governor's Education Excellence Commission voted unanimously to recommend that state lawmakers pass a resolution in support of the Prosperity 2020 goals. According to the Education Commission of the States, 14 states passed legislation in 2012 aimed at improving third-grade literacy, for a combined total of 32 states — and Washington, D.C. — that have policies in statute to improve proficiency in the third grade. 

Ladner said that learning to read is similar to learning to speak a language, in that it is easier to pick up the skills in younger years as opposed to later in life. Most states typically begin tracking student proficiency in the third grade, Ladner said, but he argues they should start sooner.

"The K-3 period is absolutely critical," he said. "Most state grading systems begin in grade three. We're not tracking nearly enough in what happens in those grades."

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