Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

A recent longitudinal analysis of children in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adds to our understanding of the role of third grade reading in later academic performance. Researchers from the University of Chicago used administrative data to track educational outcomes for 26,000 students who were third graders in 1996-97. (Download “Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade.”)

“Findings from this study are consistent with existing literature that emphasizes the importance of early reading ability for future educational success,” the report concludes. “Third-grade reading level was shown to be significant predictor of eighth-grade reading level and ninth-grade course performance even after accounting for demographic characteristics and how a child’s school influences their individual performance. Third-grade reading level was also shown to be a predictor of graduation and college attendance, even when demographic characteristics were included as controls.”

Here in Massachusetts, the Legislature is considering An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency and will hold a public hearing on May 31.

The Chicago researchers used results of Iowa Test of Basic Skills to determine children’s reading level in third grade. Children who scored below the 25th national percentile were considered to read below grade level, children who scored between the 25th and 74th percentile were at grade level, and children who scored in the 75th percentile or higher were considered to be reading above grade level. Overall, 38% of CPS students read below grade level, half were at grade level, and 12% read above grade level.

While almost 80% of students who read above grade level in third grade graduated from high school within five years, only 45% of those who read below grade level graduated. Among children who read at grade level, 60% finished high school within five years. Likewise, less than 20% of students who lagged in reading in third grade attended college, compared with almost 60% of CPS students who read above grade level in third grade. Researchers also noted the critical importance of eighth grade reading and ninth grade academic performance in predicting a child’s chances of later educational attainment. Here, too, third grade reading level was a significant predictor of these benchmarks, with 40% of children who read below grade level in third grade are still below grade level in eighth grade. Very few children with weak reading skills in third grade progressed to reading above grade level in eighth grade.

“Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade begin having difficulty comprehending the written material that is a central part of the educational process in the grades that follow,” the report states. “Meeting increased educational demands becomes more difficult for students who struggle to read.”