George Washington Carver famously said that “education is the key to unlock the golden door to freedom.” America has exemplified that truth with countless examples of individuals who have improved their position in life through education. Access to education is the foundation of the American dream. And the foundation to education and educational achievement is basic literacy.
The ability to read is critical to student success, as well as life-long earning potential and economic security. From kindergarten to 3rd grade most students are learning to read. After 3rd grade, students should be reading to learn. Third grade marks a clear pivot point in reading. If children cannot read proficiently at the end of 3rd grade, it is a daunting road block to future educational and professional success.
Nebraska needs to improve 3rd grade reading proficiency. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the “Nation’s Report Card,” is the only accurate metric to compare states. NAEP reports only 40 percent of Nebraska students were proficient in reading by 4th grade, and only 38 percent were proficient by 8th grade.
Studies on 3rd grade reading demonstrate that those who struggle to read by 3rd grade continue to struggle and are likely to fall further behind their grade-level reading peers. If a child is not reading proficiently going into 4th grade, they only have a 22 percent chance of ever catching up.
One of Nebraska’s biggest challenges in reading proficiency is the state assessment tool. According to the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Education Policy and Governance’s Education Next, Nebraska is ranked 45 out of 51 for Rigor of State Proficiency Standards. While many states have raised the bar on assessments to be closer to NAEP, Nebraska has not. Nebraska’s kids simply deserve better than the low standards set by virtue of our state assessment tool.
A child who cannot read proficiently by 3rd grade is on the high school dropout track. A study conducted on how reading skills and poverty influences graduation found struggling to read in 3rd grade is a stronger predictor of dropping out of high school than spending a year in poverty. Almost 90 percent of students in poverty who read proficiently by 3rd grade graduated on time. Conversely, 88 percent of students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in 3rd grade.
When children don’t learn to read and eventually drop out of high school the cost to taxpayers is high. Dropouts make up 90 percent of Americans on welfare and 75 percent of food stamp recipients. But the consequence of failing the individual child is even more costly. Statistically, children who cannot read proficiently by 4th grade are more likely be on welfare or in the corrections system at some point in their lives. Almost 85 percent of teenagers in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate and seven out of ten adult prisoners can’t read above a 4th grade level.
Nebraska can take decisive steps to ensure our students achieve a higher standard at a better rate. We can start by increasing our reading standards with a better assessment tool. Many states have adopted A-F grading scales to provide transparency for parents about student outcomes. This is a cost effective tool to improve the quality of education. What is measured will improve. Best practices on A-F scales include measures for both proficiency and year-to-year improvement so schools that start further down are recognized for their progress and high performing schools are continually challenged to improve.
We should develop public policy around the importance of 3rd grade reading, a concept which was introduced in the Unicameral this year. Nebraska is one of only 15 states with no policy on K-3 reading, while 12 states have adopted comprehensive polices and 35 states have some form of K-3 reading policy.
In government, the discussion about education often centers on topics pushed by the teachers’ union and lobbyists hired by school districts with taxpayer funds. Unfortunately, that means the political discussion often centers on things like school funding and pensions, when education discussions should begin and end with student achievement.
Every Nebraska student deserves the opportunities that a good education can bring. Education reform policies have improved educational outcomes for students across the country. My goal is for Nebraska’s students to be at the top, in both expectations and outcomes, especially in the critical area of 3rd grade reading.
I invite you to contact me with your perspective and concerns. You can reach my office by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 402-471-2244.