Achievement gaps tell disturbing tale of two states

Disparities in third grade reading levels should not be tolerated

MASSACHUSETTS HAS THE best schools in America and some of the highest performing districts. We would not stand for it if three-quarters of the third-graders in Newton or Weston or Wellesley could not read at grade level. Unfortunately, we allow this to be a fact of life in Holyoke, Chelsea, and Lawrence.

Alongside our best schools, we also have schools with some of the worst literacy rates in the country. It’s a part of the achievement gap we rarely discuss, even though it is one of the most important – and affordable – education issues we can address. And we should, because the failure to learn to read is the single greatest barrier to future educational, career, and life achievement. Simply put, if you can’t read, you can’t learn.

Given that students who read at grade level in the third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school and far more likely to go on to college, literacy is a smart investment in our children and schools. On the flip side, poor literacy has dramatic economic, social, and health costs. Kids who can’t read are more likely to develop chronic illness, and low literacy costs this nation at least $100 billion in direct health costs.

Despite having the best public education system in the country, literacy remains a stubborn problem in the Commonwealth: 43 percent of Massachusetts third-graders do not read at grade-level. Even more concerning is that more than 60 percent of black and Latino children are not proficiently reading by the end of third grade. The numbers are even bleaker for English language learners. The rate of students meeting the critical milestone of reading on grade level at the end of third grade has actually decreased statewide over the past five years.

If you are a mother or father you may know the joy of seeing your third grader curl up with Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Stuart Little, or a Roald Dahl book, and how your child tells you later all the amazing things he or she read about. Every child deserves that opportunity, no matter how poor her family or school district, or what language is spoken in her home. We can make that happen, and we should.

So how do make sure every Massachusetts child has a chance to read?

First, we should identify ways to find struggling readers early on in grades K through four, and develop an intervention plan quickly – within in 45 days to support these young readers. Currently, the Commonwealth lacks a comprehensive statewide plan when it comes to literacy intervention.

Second, we need to provide more resources for teachers and school districts – particularly in low-income areas. This includes more reading coaches and reading interventionists, along with summer literacy classes in high-need schools. Too many school districts don’t have access to strong literacy curriculum to most effectively help students. As a former high school teacher, in an urban district, I was baffled when students who were 15 or 16 years old could not read at grade level. By the time they reached me, they had already struggled through the vast majority of their school years. I wasn’t prepared to help them.

Finally, we must tackle the underlying challenges that are also having an impact on students – including things such as chronic absenteeism and not having access to basic health screenings like eye and hearing exams. Too often, children in poor districts have hearing or vision difficulties that are not detected until they have fallen far behind their peers. And low-income children in Massachusetts often lack access to high-quality preschool and are more likely to be absent in the early grades.

No child should feel the terrible frustration of falling further and further behind his or her peers because he or she needs more help learning to read. All kids deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in life.

Meet the Author

Ranjini Govender

Guest Contributor, Stand for Children Massachusetts
Stand for Children has been tagged, very unfairly, as somehow opposed to the work done by the excellent teachers of Massachusetts. We believe that teaching children to read, and hiring the people who are best trained to do that, is something we can all agree on. And we need to. Because right now too many of our children who look at a book don’t see the key to a better life, but a closed door.

Ranjini Govender is the executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts.