The Policy Shop: Illinois’ 3rd graders are struggling

The Policy Shop: Illinois’ 3rd graders are struggling

This episode of The Policy Shop is by policy analyst Hannah Schmid

If you are spending part of your day reading this, it’s more than a little likely you had solid teachers in first through third grades. They taught you to read, which was essential to learning all that was to come during the rest of your education.

But what about the students who can’t read well  A student’s reading skill at the end of third grade is a reasonable predictor for their likelihood to graduate high school

The bad news is nearly 3 in 4 Illinois third graders are headed for trouble. That’s how many did not meet standards in reading on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness in 2023.

“Students who do not ‘learn to read’ during the first three years of school experience enormous difficulty when they are subsequently required to ‘read to learn,’” according to the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators.

It’s not just the students who suffer; it is society that ultimately bears the cost.

If Illinois fails early on to prepare its students to read proficiently, more of these students are apt to drop out of high school.

Research shows students who fall behind in reading skills, especially in lower elementary grade levels, “fall farther and farther behind in school, become frustrated, and drop out at much higher rates than their classmates.”  High school dropouts have a higher unemployment rate and the cost to the economy comes in the form of lower taxable income and greater reliance on welfare.

Students need to have mastered the skill of reading by third grade so they can use reading to learn from fourth grade onwards. According to the Children’s Reading Foundation, if a student struggles to read at grade level by this critical point, up to half of the printed fourth-grade curriculum is incomprehensible.

Students who can’t read by third grade are more likely to have trouble mastering other subjects such as history or math. They need to read so they can understand the concepts being taught.

Illinois uses Common Core State Standards for English language arts on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. In 2023, not even 29% of Illinois third-grade students met or exceeded reading proficiency standards on the assessment. That means 7 in 10 third graders could not read at grade level.

Third-grade students recorded the lowest percentage of students able to read at grade level compared to every other grade level tested on the assessment in 2023.

Not a single third-grade student could read at grade level in 81 of Illinois’ public schools. Chicago Public Schools accounted for 51 of those low-performing schools.

The statistics are even worse for Illinois’ minority and low-income students. Only 13% of Black third graders and 17% of Hispanic third graders read at grade level on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness in 2023. Only 16% of low-income third graders reached proficiency.

There were 156 schools where not a single low-income, third-grade student could read at grade level.

While third grade is an important milestone, students in every grade in Illinois are struggling to read.

In 2023, eighth grade students achieved the highest proficiency rate in reading compared to the other grades tested, yet even among that group not even 41% met grade level standards in reading.

report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation warns about the future struggles that lie ahead when students read poorly at the end of third grade. “If we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty, and the price will be paid not only by individual children and families, but by this entire country,” the report states.

Poor literacy comes with a price tag. The median annual earnings of adults ages 25 through 34 who had not completed high school were $6,000 a year lower than the earnings of those with a diploma, according to data from the Census Bureau’s 2017 Current Population Survey.

The average high school dropout cost the economy approximately $272,000 compared to individuals who complete high school because of “lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity and higher reliance on welfare,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students in Illinois schools deserve quality instruction that prepares them to flourish in life after graduation. Too many students are struggling to meet grade-level standards in Illinois public schools. This threatens students’ futures and imposes a burden on the rest of society.

So, if you got this far in this article, maybe you should call Ms. Othmar from third grade and thank her for teaching you to read. It made all the difference in where you are now.

Click here to look up how well your local third graders can read.

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