Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

As readers of this blog know, Massachusetts is paying more and more attention to the critical third grade reading benchmark. “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” a report commissioned by Strategies for Children from Dr. Nonie Lesaux of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, attracted attention across Massachusetts and beyond when it was released in June. Since then, Secretary of Education Paul Reville has convened a high-level joint departmental panel charged with the twin goals of early literacy and college and career readiness. An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency (S.188/H.1853) is pending in the Legislature. Springfield continues its ongoing Read! campaign, a community-wide initiative to close the reading gap in the Western Massachusetts city.

The issue is gaining momentum across the country. The Annie E. Casey Foundation — which last year released the report “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters”  — is coordinating a nationwide Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and recently hosted a gathering of funders and other partners in Washington, D.C. “The Campaign,” according to its website, “is a collaborative effort by dozens of funders across the nation to: close the gap in reading achievement that separates many low-income students from their peers; raise the bar for reading proficiency so that all students are assessed by world-class standards; and ensure that all children, including and especially children from low-income families, have an equitable opportunity to meet those higher standards.”

The Washington Post supported the effort in the editorial “An urgency to the early years.” “What distinguishes this new effort is the recognition that improvements in school instruction must be matched by involvement from parents and the larger community,” the editorial states. “Yes, there is a need to raise standards and do something about low-performing schools where non-readers are allowed to languish and get promoted. But it’s also important to pay attention to prenatal health, for parents to be taught the importance of verbal interaction with children who have yet to start talking and to strengthen preschool programs by lining up activities with what’s being taught in the early elementary grades.”

Neighboring Rhode Island is one state that is focusing on reading proficiency. Like Massachusetts, Rhode Island posts results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests that put it ahead of other states, although in no state do a majority of fourth graders score proficient or above in reading. On the 2009 NAEP reading test administered at the beginning of fourth grade, Massachusetts children had the best scores in the country, with 47% scoring proficient or above, and Rhode Island was No. 11, with 36% achieving proficiency. “Even the states with the best results for fourth-grade reading proficiency continue to have fewer than half of their students who are proficient in reading,” Rhode Island Kids Count notes in an issue brief – “Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters” –released late last year.

Rhode Island’s Kids Count calls for policymakers to “close the preparation gap that children experience when they enter school” and “ensure that early learning programs and K-3 classrooms are high-quality teaching and learning environment. Specific recommendations include providing early learning for infants and toddlers, access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, effective teachers, effective instruction for children with disabilities and for English language learners, as well as reducing chronic absenteeism and summer learning loss.