Look to Early Education to Promote Reading Proficiency
By Emily Firgens
Third grade is a critical year for reading, with children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade at a greater risk of lower academic achievement. In fact, third grade reading proficiency is so important that over half of states are implementing policies to improve students' reading proficiency by this time, with 14 states requiring retention for students with low reading test scores in third grade.
But are test-based retention policies in grade 3 successful in improving the academic outcomes for students? That was the focus of a recent event at Brookings. Along with the event came the release of the brief, Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?, which takes a close look at Florida's third grade reading test-based retention policy. The Florida policy retains students who score at the lowest level on the state's reading test at the end of third grade. Students are then put through summer reading camp, assigned to "high-performing" teachers, and receive intensive reading intervention. Started in 2003, the policy is so far seen as a success by many. The brief shows retained students' experiencing achievement gains in reading and math compared to their promoted peers. Yet, the question that remains unanswered is whether retention itself helped students, or if it was a package of policies including intensive intervention and reading assistance that had the most significant effect.
Years of research demonstrate that retained students face negative academic outcomes as a result of being retained. Retained students can experience stigmatization and reduced expectations, causing them more harm. Additionally, retention policies come at significant financial cost to state and local school systems.
While the efficacy of retention policies will likely be debated for several years, particularly as additional states consider implementing similar policies to Florida's, what need not be debated is the efficacy of prevention and intervention during children's earliest years. We know from decades of research that the supports made available long before children reach third grade impact their reading proficiency and future academic performance. Critical to Florida's retention policy is the reading intervention and help that students receive, including in the earlier elementary school years.
High-quality early education and early interventions are shown to positively impact children's academic outcomes and are often much less costly investments than retaining students. For example, Michigan's pre-kindergarten program for low-income children, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), followed a group of participants through high school graduation. The most recent GSRP study showed a retention rate that was 12 percentage points lower for GSRP-participants than that of students who were not in GSRP. Michigan also saved money through the reduction in grade retentions; 43.5 percent of the cost of GSRP was recovered by not having to pay for more students to repeat a grade.
State policies are also recognizing the importance of early literacy even prior to pre-kindergarten. Both Minnesota and Massachusetts have taken steps to promote cognitive and language development, bringing a focus on the importance of pre-reading and early literacy to closing the achievement gap and promoting future academic achievement.
Other initiatives are making a difference too. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national collaborative effort between nonprofits, foundations, and states and communities, focuses on closing the reading achievement gap that exists between many low-income children and their peers and promotes a plan to get all students reading on grade-level by the end of third grade. Central to the Campaign is encouraging states and communities to invest in quality pre-kindergarten and early childhood programs for low-income children, so they can have more opportunity to develop their pre-reading skills.
In order to promote reading proficiency by the end of third grade, states should embrace policies that focus on early childhood education and developing children's pre-literacy skills, particularly for those who are most vulnerable to struggling with reading later on.