Massachusetts 3rd graders falling short of early literacy benchmarks

Legislation requiring evidence-based reading instruction could make a big difference

READING IS THE foundation of all learning, and literacy the touchstone for academic success. While reading is essential at all grade levels, third grade is a student’s most pivotal year – the one where students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Tragically, less than half of Massachusetts third graders read proficiently. Even more alarmingly, on the 2022 English language arts MCAS assessment, a mere 15 percent of students with disabilities, 11 percent of English learners, 26 percent of students from low-income households, 23 percent of Latino students, and 28 percent of Black students met or exceeded grade level expectations.

In our largest cities, students are below even the dismal statewide averages. In Boston, just 29 percent of 3rd graders read on grade level while only 11 percent of students with disabilities, 13 percent of English learners, 21 percent of students from low-income families, 19 percent of Latino students, and 21 percent of Black students were proficient readers. The results are nearly as bad, or worse, in WorcesterSpringfield, and New Bedford.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — commonly referred to as the nation’s report card — tells a similar story. Scores have declined steadily since 2017 and have landed with a thud back at levels last seen in 2005. These declines have disproportionately affected students from historically underserved backgrounds, widening the opportunity gap — already among the widest in the nation. These sobering results dispel the illusion of exceptionalism typically believed about public education in Massachusetts.

The relationship between early literacy and later life outcomes makes it especially troubling that reading scores appear to be on the decline. Third grade reading levels are linked to high school graduation rates, college and career readiness, and economic well-being. In fact, a child who is not reading proficiently by the end of third grade is unlikely to graduate high school and more likely to have behavioral and social challenges.

When half of our students aren’t hitting this critical third-grade benchmark, we need to ask hard questions and consider new methods. Inconsistent approaches to early literacy have hampered efforts. School districts, seemingly looking for a silver bullet, have replaced one failed curriculum for another. In Boston, reading curricula have been replaced nearly as often as district superintendents. Inequities will continue to persist if we do not provide students with the resources and the early and effective intervention necessary for proficiency.

Massachusetts began addressing this crisis in 2018 with the passage of legislation to require universal screening for students with reading-based learning disabilities, then built on that by enacting new regulations that take effect this school year requiring districts to carry out early literacy screening for all students in grades K-3 twice per year.

Massachusetts needs to go further. Fundamental changes in how we teach reading need to be implemented. “An Act to Promote High-Quality Comprehensive Literacy Instruction in all Massachusetts Schools,” which is currently before the Legislature, would create a more uniform approach rooted in evidence-based early literacy and science-based reading instruction, while allowing districts flexibility to choose a curriculum aligned with specific state standards.

The approach is backed by decades of research in how children learn to read. The legislation would ensure the use of high-quality instructional materials, including explicit and systematic instruction in topics such as decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, and would systematically, sequentially, and cumulatively build a child’s reading skills. Thrice yearly screenings from grades K through 3 would also be required, with identified deficiencies addressed within 30 days in partnership with parents. It would also require preservice training and professional development, assessment and parental notification, and in-class and out-of-class interventions.

Cities and states across the country are ahead of the curve recognizing the importance of strong policies and aligned resources to ensure that all students learn to read by third grade. Legislative changes in a number of states have been driven by broad stakeholder coalitions of educators, civil rights groups, and parents. For example, VirginiaTennessee and Mississippi have adopted comprehensive, coordinated, actionable measures that are moving the needle for their students.

The passage of this bill would put us on the path to stronger early literacy, with the goal of ensuring reading comprehension by third grade for all students — as well as the improved life outcomes that flow from it. As we begin a new school year, our lawmakers should make literacy instruction a top priority so the Commonwealth can prepare our students for the success they deserve.

Mary Tamer is the executive director for Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts and a former member of the Boston School Committee.