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Studies have shown that students with below average reading proficiency in the third grade are four times more likely to drop out before their final year of high school. Currently, about half of all third graders are below the proficiency line.

Efforts to carve out additional funding for public schools may have grabbed the lion’s share of attention during the recent legislative session, but a bill dealing with third-grade reading proficiency that passed with little fanfare will hopefully bring significant beneficial impacts of its own.

The measure addresses a disturbing rate of reading inadequacy among students at a pivotal point in their educational tracks. Studies have shown that students with below average reading proficiency in the third grade are four times more likely to drop out before their final year of high school. Currently, about half of all third-graders are below the proficiency line.

“I can’t believe in Utah we’re only 50 percent, so I’m equally frustrated because it’s our kids and it’s their future that we’re leaving behind,” said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, the bill’s sponsor. “I say we shouldn’t be happy until we get to 90 percent.”

Her bill, SB194, raises the bar by requiring 60 percent proficiency. It calls on school boards to develop and report on strategies designed to meet that goal, and it creates a structure of transparency so that programs that produce effective results can be replicated. Currently, local districts have significant latitude in administering programs aimed at increasing reading proficiency. Flexibility is good, but it may also result in disparities in success rates from school to school. Supporters of SB194 are encouraged by its intent to hold local school boards accountable for performance in their districts.

The measure is also commendable for focusing on students at a decisive age. It’s been said that third grade is the period of time in which kids transition from learning how to read to reading to learn. If they move on to fourth grade with less than adequate skills, they are likely to fall farther behind each succeeding grade. Research shows that 75 percent of kids who are below proficiency reading levels in third grade never catch up.

As many as 30 others states have enacted laws focusing on third-grade reading skills, and there is evidence that an approach focused on this single cohort of students is effective. There are also signs that current reading curricula in Utah are meeting with success. Reading proficiency jumped to about 49 percent from around 44 percent in the 2013-14 school year. Hopefully, under SB194, what has been working to raise reading skills can be more easily identified and shared.

7 comments on this story

Utah faces a time in which an educated workforce is critical to continued economic prosperity. That’s particularly true in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. If the state wishes its students to become more capable in those STEM areas, improving early education reading skills is a vital predicate. Children with an aptitude for science can’t tackle an engineering problem if they struggle reading the problem description.

Utahns should be pleased lawmakers have placed a firm focus on issues pertinent to the success of their education system. It’s important to remember that progress is not all about money. Programs that target specific inadequacies in the system also are necessary to raise the tide of success for all students.