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DOUBLE JEOPARDY: New Report Examines the Impact that Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Have on High School Graduation Rates

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“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.”

Students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers, according to a new report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report, Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, bases its findings on a longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 students who were born between 1979 and 1989.

“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 Annie E. Casey Foundation. “This research confirms the compelling need to address the underlying issues that keep children from reading.”

According to the report, only 4 percent of students who are proficient in reading by third grade fail to graduate from high school, compared to 16 percent of students who are not reading at grade level by third grade. Among third-grade students who lack even the most basic reading skills, 23 percent fail to graduate from high school. These students, who account for one-third of all students, make up more than 60 percent of all students who do not graduate from high school.

Poor reading skills have an even more adverse impact on students of color. According to the report, black and Hispanic students who are not reading proficiently by third grade are 11 to 12 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school than white students with similar reading skills.

The report also finds that poverty compounds the program and plays a critical role in whether students will develop the reading skills they need to succeed in school. It notes that 83 percent of children in low-income families have reading skills below the proficient level.

“Children in poor families are in double jeopardy,” the report notes. “They are more likely to have low reading test scores and, at any reading-skill level, they are less likely to graduate from high school.”

Indeed, Double Jeopardy finds that 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school, compared to only 6 percent of children who have never been poor. Nearly one-third of children who have spent more than half of their childhood in poverty do not earn a high school diploma.

Among children with both risk factors—they have lived in poverty and have reading skills below the proficient level—26 percent do not graduate from high school, compared to 9 percent of students who have below-proficient reading skills but have never experienced poverty. Overall, the report finds that children who spend a year or more in poverty account for 38 percent of all children, but they represent 70 percent of all high school dropouts.

In conducting the study, researchers divided children into three reading groups that roughly correspond to the skill levels used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress: proficient, basic, and below basic. Children were also separated into three groups based on their experience with poverty: those who had never been poor, those who had spent some time in poverty, and those who had lived more than half of their lives in poverty.

The complete report is available at http://bit.ly/h4kt41.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.