“How could we know as much as we do, spend as much as we do, care as much as we do and accomplish so little,” Ralph Smith, managing director for the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, said. “The answer is no more comforting than the question. We didn’t know as much as we thought and we didn’t care as much as we thought.”
Through a partnership between United Way of Rhode Island (UWRI) and Kids Count, Rhode Island joined the Campaign for Grade Level Reading on Tuesday afternoon.
The collaborative campaign focuses predominantly on improving the reading proficiency of 3rd grade students, especially those students in low-income families. This is an important indicator in predicting a student’s success and those students who cannot read at a proper level by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
More than 200 communities in 42 states have committed themselves to the campaign after the campaign’s 2010 report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters, which found that only 67 percent of students nationwide, 80 percent of them coming from low-income families, are not proficient in reading by 3rd grade.
By 2020 the campaign wants states to increase the number of children from low-income families reading proficiently at the end of 3rd grade by at least 100 percent by bringing together nonprofit, business and government leaders to improve reading through policies focusing on improved school readiness with early education programs, reducing summer learning loss and reducing chronic absenteeism.
Stephanie Geller, policy analyst for Kids Count, presented the newly released PARCC tests, where 37 percent of 3rd graders statewide met expectations in literacy, with only an additional 23 percent approaching those standards.
She pointed out the large “achievement gaps,” with the top five scoring municipalities being the wealthiest and the bottom five being the least wealthiest.
She noted Rhode Island ranks in the middle of 11 states using the test and ninth for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Smith said, “Rhode Island could celebrate being better than some places, but in this room we can decide to do better, to say that this isn’t good enough. We can change the trajectory. We have to do a better job.”
He said a child who can read is a powerful force because “that kid is an ally and agent of their own learning, an advocate for their own interests, a co-author and co-architect of their future. That is the power of reading.”
For those children, though, who have not learned to read at their grade level, they are in trouble and know it.
Smith questioned how we couldn’t expect those students to have faith in and respect a system, in teachers, and all adults who have led them to this point in their lives.
“They see this as an emergency, but they realize no cavalry is coming to help them,” he said. “These are the kids who leave school in 9th or 10th grade, but they dropped out in 4th. We can and will change this.”
Tony Maione, president and CEO of UWRI, said that in the transition between 3rd and 4th grade, students are learning to read and then are expected to be able to read to further their education and for those who can’t, students continuously fall behind.
Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Kids Count, said there is “tremendous power” in an indicator like 3rd grade reading levels because it gets people organized and moving toward progress to ensure the best for our state’s children.
As a mother to a third grader herself, Governor Gina Raimondo said she watches her son struggle with reading, but also can see his potential. She recognizes that not every child is as lucky as hers, but wants to work to make sure all kids have the same opportunities as her own.
“I believe in these young people,” she said. “We are letting these kids down. We know that when a child is behind in reading by third grade it is hard, if not impossible, to catch up. We need to do better.”
She noted that with ensuring universal full-day kindergarten and tripling the number of public affordable pre-kindergarten programs, the state is off to a good start in ensuring reading proficiency for all children.
“When students can read, the whole world opens up and when they can’t, they start shutting down,” said Ken Wagner, commissioner of Rhode Island Department of Education. “Things start to cascade in third grade.”
He said we need to make sure teachers are empowered to do this work and have resources available to them so they can best support each of their students’ learning.
Wagner said, “All of these metrics are anchored to real kids. The answers are in this state, in this room and in our schools. We need to be dedicated.”
For more information on the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, visit gradelevelreading.net.