Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

The results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress were announced yesterday, and, once again, Massachusetts topped the country in fourth grade reading. Yet only half of the commonwealth’s fourth graders scored proficient or above, a proportion that shows no statistically significant difference (p < .05) from the 2009 and 2007 results. Even here, in the top-performing state, large numbers of children lag in reading, the basis of learning in all subjects. Nationally, one-third of fourth graders scored proficient or above in reading. Over the past two decades, student progress nationally in math has outpaced very modest gains in reading.

“The improvement in mathematics achievement undoubtedly reflects the success of math instruction in our schools because math is almost exclusively a school subject taught almost entirely in math classes,” David Driscoll, the former Massachusetts commissioner of education who now chairs the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a statement. “It is quite different for reading, where the achievement that NAEP measures also reflects how much children read outside of school and the reading demands across the curriculum, not just in reading classes or English language arts.”

To this we would add that the building blocks of literacy begin at birth, in the oral language development embedded in a child’s earliest interactions. Well before a child learns to read, the foundation for literacy is laid in playful conversations between adult and child, in the back and forth of reading aloud and talking about the unfolding story, in the background knowledge and vocabulary a child begins to accumulate long before entering kindergarten. It is in these first few years of life that the opportunity gap is born. By age 3, the vocabulary of the child of parents with professional jobs is, on average, roughly double the average vocabulary of the child whose parents are low-income. Children’s vocabulary in kindergarten is strongly correlated with their 10th grade reading scores.

The consequences of not becoming a proficient reader by the end of third grade can be profound. Research tells us that 74% of children who struggle with reading in third grade will continue to struggle in school. They are substantially less likely to graduate from high school, continue their education and contribute to our increasingly knowledge-based economy. Other research finds that children who read below grade level in third grade are four times less likely to finish high school by age 19 than other children.

This disparity is evident in the Massachusetts scores reported by NAEP:

“We must commit to action,” Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, said in a statement. “We must increase investments in a statewide system of high-quality early education and care, one of the few educational strategies with a demonstrated positive impact on children’s later literacy and other skills. We must enact An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency, a bill now pending on Beacon Hill that would focus state efforts on strategies to promote children’s language and literacy development from birth to age 9.”

Unlike the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which tests every student, NAEP is given every two years to a large sample of children. The 2011 MCAS results released in September showed 39% of third graders scoring below proficient in English language arts.

Ultimately, NAEP, like MCAS, offers a snapshot of student achievement and points out areas of concern. In the end, we want young people to read with fluency and comprehension, to satisfy their curiosity and engage their imaginations. We want them to possess the confidence and skills to become productive workers and responsible citizens.  The results of both NAEP and MCAS sound a warning that we have much to do to achieve these goals.