Poor Reading Skills Trap Children in Poverty, Study Shows

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids


Lyndon Johnson said education is the only valid passport out of poverty.

The challenge is getting that passport.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report Tuesday that claims 85 percent of low-income children attending low-income schools can't read proficiently even after attending school for at least three years.

But, it turns out, the school itself doesn't really matter. When Casey researchers looked at low-income students attending any school, the number of functionally illiterate children dropped only two points to 83 percent.

The foundation's report -- "Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters" -- is the latest in a series of "Kids Count" analyses issued by the private charitable organization that was created in 1948 to help poor children and their families.

Researchers for the foundation looked at the 2009 reading scores (released in March) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Looking at the results, they concluded:

  • 90 percent of low-income African-American students in high-poverty schools are not reading at grade level by fourth grade.
  • 83 percent of low-income African-American students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty do not reach the reading goals.
  • 88 percent of Hispanic students in high-poverty schools show similarly low scores.
  • 82 percent of Hispanic students in schools with low or moderate rates of families living in poverty do not read at grade level.
"Until third grade, children are learning to read. After third grade, they also are reading to learn. When kids are not reading by fourth grade, they almost certainly get on a glide path to poverty," Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Baltimore-based foundation, says in a press release. "Poor reading test scores are profoundly disappointing to all of us who see school success and high school graduation as beacons in the battle against intergenerational poverty."

Although test scores have increased over the past 15 years for most students, disparities in reading persist across economic, racial and ethnic groups, Smith says.

"The stressors facing the most vulnerable kids and families include more health problems that interfere with early learning, fewer early interactions that foster language development, plus limited access to high-quality early childhood and pre-K programs," says Patrick T. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation, in the release. "The parents of children who attend low-performing, under-resourced schools may be less able or comfortable interacting with schools on their children's behalf. They may be distracted by hunger, housing insecurity and family mobility."

Alma Powell of America's Promise Alliance says the number one contributor to a young person's success is whether he or she graduates from high school. And early reading skills are essential to achieving that goal, she says in the press release.

"The National Research Council has shown that a child who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by the end of third grade is unlikely to graduate from high school," she says. "Paying attention to risk indicators like this and others, such as attendance and truancy rates, allows us to intervene early when we can make a real difference."

Related: Study: Better Teachers Help Children Read Faster

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