Third-graders who don’t read proficiently are four times more likely than their reading-at-grade-level peers to drop out or fail out of high school. Poverty compounds the problem, the report Double Jeopardy: How Poverty and Third-Grade Reading Skills Influence High School Graduation released late last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found.

“We will never close the achievement gap, we will never solve our dropout crisis, we will never break the cycle of poverty that afflicts so many children if we don’t make sure that all our students learn to read,” said Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the foundation.

children's booksThe study, by Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York, confirmed the link between third grade reading levels and high school graduation. Hernandez tested the link between reading ability and poverty by examining the scores of students who had never been poor, those who had spent some time in poverty and those who had lived more than half the years surveyed in poverty.

The study relied on a unique national database of 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989. The participating students’ parents were surveyed every two years to determine the family’s economic status and other factors, while the children’s reading progress was tracked using the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) Reading Recognition subtest. The database reports whether students have finished high school by age 19, but does not indicate whether they actually dropped out.

Most of the students in the sample managed to finish high school by the time they were 19. But for students who did not, the numbers of students who didn’t graduate were highest among those who didn’t read well in third grade and those who had lived in poverty. Black and Hispanic students were disproportionately represented in both categories, the study found. They were twice as likely as white children not to graduate on time.

🔗Research recommendations

The report recommended aligning quality early education programs with the curriculum and standards in the primary grades; paying better attention to the health and developmental needs of young children; and providing work training and other programs that will help lift families out of poverty.

At Denver’s Colfax Elementary School, where 95 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, class sizes are kept smaller – about 19 in each classroom – in the early years as a way to give all students more one-on-one time with teachers, teachers at the school said. Of the 42 third-graders who took the reading CSAP last year, only 45 percent tested as proficient. Districtwide in Denver, 50 percent of third-graders tested as proficient or advanced in reading last year.

“I believe that it’s a correct correlation,” said Barbara Silva, administrative assistant at Colfax. “We know that children, once they fall behind, fall further behind each year. It makes sense that they drop out of school.”

Students who fall below grade reading levels at Colfax are enrolled in an intervention program called Voyager, run by teachers and paraprofessionals who are trained in reading intervention. Students attend a small reading group and have extra guided readings on a daily basis.

“We offer extra intervention if needed,” said Silva. “We use data to track students and we look to see if the program is working. If it’s not, we try different techniques.”

🔗Key findings

  • One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.
  • The rates are highest for the low, below-basic readers: 23 percent of these children drop out or fail to finish high school on time, compared to 9 percent of children with basic reading skills and 4 percent of proficient readers.
  • The below-basic readers account for a third of the sample but three-fifths of the students who do not graduate.
  • Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school, compared to 6 percent of those who have never been poor. This rises to 32 percent for students spending more than half of the survey time in poverty.
  • For children who were poor for at least a year and were not reading proficiently in third grade, the proportion of those who don’t finish school rose to 26 percent.  The rate was highest for poor black and Hispanic students, at 31 and 33 percent respectively. Even so the majority of students who fail to graduate are white.
  • Even among poor children who were proficient readers in third grade, 11 percent still didn’t finish high school. That compares to 9 percent of subpar third graders who were never poor.
  • Among children who never lived in poverty, all but 2 percent of the best third-grade readers graduated from high school on time.

🔗About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.