Study: U.S. students not reading at grade level; Pa. shows improvement

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Dan Hampton

Most students in the United States lack the essential reading skills needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive society, according to a report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The report is an update to the data reported in two earlier Casey Foundation studies – Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and Early Warning Confirmed. Data in those documents indicated that children who read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade are more likely to graduate high school and succeed as adults. The end of 3rd grade is about the time when children move from learning how to read to using reading to learn other subjects.

But according to the foundation’s most recent report – which gathered data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – almost 80 percent of low-income students in the United States and 66 percent of all U.S. students do not read at grade level by 4th grade.

“We must do more to improve reading proficiency among all kids,” said Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the foundation and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

“All states need to do whatever it takes to get all kids – especially in populations that are struggling – on track with this milestone,” he said.

Pennsylvania students rank 11th in the nation in reading proficiency, but more than half of the state’s 4th graders are still not reading at grade level.

There has been some progress in Pennsylvania. Test scores improved 10 percent from 2003 to 2013. In that time, the national average increased by 6 percent.

The study also found large disparities in reading proficiency levels among economic and racial groups.

Nationwide, students from wealthier families improved 17 percent in the last 10 years, while low-income students improved just 6 percent.

Seventy-seven percent of low-income students from Pennsylvania were not reading at grade level last year, compared to 45 percent of high-income students.

Additionally, only about one in five Black, Latino, and American Indian 4th graders were reading at grade level in 2013, significantly less than White and Asian/Pacific Islander children.

To improve academics among these groups, the study recommended regular school attendance, community support, expanded summer learning, and better early care and education.

Smith said that the increasing gap between economic groups is unacceptable.

“We must do more to improve reading proficiency among all kids while focusing attention on children in lower-income families who face additional hurdles of attending schools that have high concentrations of kids living in poverty.”

Dan Hampton is an intern at the Notebook.