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What the Third Grade Predicts

Published on: April 30, 2014

Experts say it all the time: Up until third grade, a child learns to read. After third grade, a child reads to learn.

Like kindergarten readiness, third-grade performance is a strong predictor of academic success. Annie Murphy Paul, author of “The Brilliant Report,” a weekly newsletter on how to learn smarter, and the new book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, explained in a 2012 article in Time that the books a third-grader is expected to master are no longer simple primers used to decode words. They are filled with facts.

Paul cites what researchers call the “Matthew effect,” named for a verse in the Gospel of Matthew. “The academically rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as small differences in learning ability grow into large ones.”

In other words, there is a snowball effect that can impact a struggling student. That’s where interventions come into play. Michigan has launched the Reading Now Network, a regional initiative embraced by 70 school districts to bring the number of proficient third-grade readers up to 80 percent and implement strong support strategies for the remaining 20 percent. Currently, nearly one-third of third-graders in western Michigan are not reading at grade level.

Nationally, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaboration of foundations, nonprofit groups, states and communities that aims to dramatically increase the number of third graders reading at grade level. Although the gaps are narrowing, according to the campaign, 67 percent of children nationwide, most from low-income families, lack reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

To help students get to the best possible position by that time, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading works to improve school readiness, combat chronic absenteeism, develop programs to prevent summer learning loss and foster student health and parent engagement. Its Healthy Readers initiative focuses on four milestones: “Born Healthy,” “Thriving at Three,” “Ready at Five,” and “Present and Engaged in the Early Grades.”

The campaign got me thinking about academic milestones and how little I understood the make-or-break ones, as well as other benchmarks that indicate important cognitive development and academic success. I suspect I am not the only parent who feels this way.

I did some research and also checked with Paul and an expert at the University of Washington College of Education. They could tell me of no other grade that holds the same level of significance as the third grade. It’s what I refer to as a “leap year” in education.

When we have babies, we are told that they should roll over, walk and talk within specific time frames. But where is the list of academic touchpoints for preschool through high school?

When you go to curriculum night at your child’s school, are you confident that you understand what the range of learning goals are for the school year and how these lead to the next level of subject understanding? Do you understand grade-level standards? Do you know how to interpret test scores?

Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a national organization committed to closing the “opportunity gaps” in education, believes there is a communications gap when educators try to convey how students are faring academically.

“Technical jargon and confusing data may overwhelm parents,” she says. “But when you talk about the core issues in education, such as uneven expectations and the need for high academic standards, this resonates with most people.”

When surveyed about the importance of standardized tests with no mention of any increase in testing, respondents to a 2013 Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll overwhelmingly supported tests as a way to assess student and school performance. But respondents to a 2013 Gallup poll that referred to a spike in testing showed waning support for tests as a measurement tool.

Now, amid fear and misunderstanding about the new Common Core State Standards — a perceived “teach to the test” curriculum influenced by the use of standardized tests in teacher performance evaluations and federal funding decisions — there is a growing “opt out of testing” movement.

Haycock admits there is a troubling lack of transparency when it comes to explaining the importance of test data. And, she says, while it’s true that the data on elementary and middle schools is better than ever and that some socio-economic and ethnic groups have made big academic gains, there is a lack of state-by-state data on high schools.

Haycock believes that solid high school preparation for college and career should be the next frontier in education reform. The U.S. currently lags internationally in college completion rates. How will American high schools and colleges organize themselves to support student success?

Perhaps, as a first step, academic benchmarks should be treated like “well child” medical checkups, with clear grade-level expectations for all children conveyed in a way that all parents can understand.

“We are collecting more data on kids and performance, schools and school districts than ever before,” Haycock says. “But do we display this in ways that people can grasp and own?”

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