MCAS scores highlight 3d-grade reading problem

58% in Gateway Cities not proficient

Last month’s release of 2013 MCAS results generated some good news. Concealed in the results, however, is a hidden story that is cause for concern: 43 percent of the state’s third graders are not proficient readers – compared to 39 percent last year. Among children from low-income families, a shocking 65 percent lag in reading. Disturbingly, these scores have remained stagnant for more than a decade.

The numbers are especially troubling in our 26 Gateway Cities – the large and midsize cities that serve as economic engines. In these cities, an average of 58 percent of third graders are not able to read proficiently, including 72 percent of children in Chelsea and 87 percent in Holyoke. In Boston, 68 percent of third graders are not proficient readers.

Behind the statistics are too many children that show up for school already behind and too many that never catch up. They are struggling readers who can grow increasingly frustrated as they try to sound out words, sort out meaning, and keep up with classmates. These children may experience low self-esteem and motivation, behavior problems, and possible grade retention or unnecessary and costly referrals for special education. Among the long-term consequences: struggling readers are four times less likely than proficient readers to graduate high school on time, jeopardizing their prospects for participating in our global knowledge-based economy. The cost of not investing early become staggering when you consider that 7,000 students dropped out of high school last year, and each high school dropout costs Massachusetts taxpayers, on average, $349,000.

Changing this trajectory requires action at both the local and state levels. Learning begins at birth. There’s no question about the importance of what children are learning in kindergarten, first, second, and third grades. But the achievement gap is apparent years before children show up for the first day of kindergarten. By age three, children from low-income families, on average, have vocabularies that are half the size of their higher income peers. By four, children from low-income families are exposed to an estimated 32 million fewer words.

Over the past decade we have gotten very efficient at squeezing everything we can out of the K-12 system. But expecting schools to be able to solve this problem and catch these kids up on their own isn’t realistic or cost effective. We need to start when children are younger, and ensure a consistent and intensive commitment to quality in all settings that children experience during their early years. Kindergarten teachers can tell as early as the first day of school which children have experienced a high-quality early education and which have not.

As outcomes in communities and states across the nation are proving, investing in early education helps close stubborn achievement gaps. New Jersey’s high-quality Abbott Preschool program has shown significant effects on children’s science and math outcomes through fourth grade and fifth grade, respectively. For children who experienced two years of preschool, 20-40 percent of the achievement gap was closed.

In Minnesota, a child’s level of kindergarten readiness has been found to strongly correlate with his or her third grade reading and math performance, as well as the need for costly remedial services.

Closer to home, in Boston, children who participate in the school district’s pre-kindergarten programs are demonstrating impressive gains through elementary school. A recent analysis shows 4-year-old students who attended pre-K were 27 percent more likely to score advanced or proficient on the MCAS third grade reading test than those who did not attend. These positive findings apply to all students, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Communities across Massachusetts are acting upon the evidence that to improve children’s literacy outcomes we must align the early childhood and K-12 systems. Five communities representing more than 100,000 children under age nine – Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester – have joined together with Strategies for Children to form a learning network. Schools play a pivotal role – but not the only role. Through the network, leaders from schools, early education, libraries, businesses, philanthropy, and community organizations assess the impact of existing literacy initiatives and resources – time, money, and human capital – and develop plans for their more effective utilization. Other communities, including Somerville, New Bedford, Lowell, and Milton, are also developing plans to address children’s early language and literacy development.

To catalyze further innovation at the local level, state policymakers need to allocate funding and create policies that emphasize the importance of early learning. Policies should also facilitate alignment between our early education and care system and our public schools, so that what children learn in preschool settings prepares them for success in kindergarten and beyond.

While there has been incremental progress, much more is needed. Last fall, legislation was enacted that creates a high-level state panel to assess and align resources targeting early learning and literacy. That panel is scheduled to meet for the first time in late October.

Although the FY14 state budget included modest increases in early education and care funding, overall funding is still down a troubling 28 percent below 2001 spending levels. Given this dramatic decline in state spending, it should come as no surprise that we have not made any sustainable improvements in third-grade reading over the past decade.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author
If we truly want to close the achievement gap, and ensure more effective allocation of scare taxpayer dollars, we need to commit to meaningful investments and to ensure those investments result in outcomes for children.

Christopher Martes is interim superintendent of the Wrentham Public Schools and former president and executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Carolyn Lyons is president and CEO of Strategies for Children.