Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Children who are not proficient readers in third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than children who read proficiently, according to a recently released national study commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Among children with the lowest reading skills, almost a quarter (23%) do not graduate from high school or fail to finish on time, compared with 9% of third graders with basic reading skills and 4% of proficient readers. Overall, 88% of students graduate from high school by age 19.

“Children with the lowest reading scores account for a third of students but for more than three-fifths (63%) of all children who do not graduate from high school. Third grade reading matters,” the report “Double Jeopardy: How Poverty & Third-Grade Reading Skills Influence High School Graduation” states. “Interventions for struggling readers after third grade are seldom as effective as those in the early years.”

Here in Massachusetts, An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency is designed to address the issue by focusing on professional development, curriculum, assessment and family engagement. A public hearing is set for May 31 at the State House.

The Casey report notes that poverty, too, is a barrier, with more than one-fifth (22%) of children whose families have been poor quitting high school or not graduating by 19, compared with 6% of children who have never been poor. Among children who were poor for at least a year and who were not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, more than a quarter (26%) did not finish high school by 19. Among children who lived in poverty for more than half the period survey, the difference is even more striking. Almost one-third (32%) do not graduate on time.

“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,” Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in a news release.

The report was written by Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University and a senior advisor to the Foundation for Child Development.

“The study relies on a unique national database of 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989,” the report states. “The children’s parents were surveyed every two years to determine the family’s economic status and other factors, while the children’s reading progress was tracked using the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) Reading Recognition subtest. The database reports whether students have finished high school by age 19, but does not indicate whether they actually dropped out. For purposes of this study, the researchers divided the children into three reading groups which correspond roughly to the skill levels used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): proficient, basic and below basic. The children were also separated into three income categories: those who have never been poor, those who spent some time in poverty and those who have lived more than half the years surveyed in poverty.”