Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

The Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education recently heard testimony on the Dropout Prevention Act (S.185) introduced by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), the committee’s co-chair. Among other things, the bill would establish a pilot program — that could later be implemented statewide — to extend the early warning index to third grade.

“Proficiency in third grade reading is a huge indicator of the likelihood that a child will graduate from high school,” Chang-Diaz said when I interviewed her earlier this year. “Early education is not the only lever we push on in this bill, but it’s absolutely an important piece of the puzzle.”

Nina Chen, deputy director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, testified in favor of using third grade performance as an early warning index. Children who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade, she noted, face a substantially higher risk of dropping out of school.

“We believe that your deliberations should be informed by the work districts are doing with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to implement an early warning system and to develop data to measure results and identify the most promising practices.  To that end, MBAE supports provisions in S185 that call for expanding the early warning indicator index system to include data on students in third grade through twelfth grade,” Chen testified. “A child’s education path is often determined in a student’s earliest years…. Identifying those at risk as early as third grade will increase the chance that these students will receive the necessary and critical support that keeps them on the track towards high school graduation.”

Rosemary Hernandez of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County urged the committee to consider an earlier early warning index. Her son, she told the committee, graduated from Central High School in Springfield in May 2010. When he started high school, his class had 859 students. Four years later, he was one of only 406 graduates.

“An early warning index program should be implemented from pre-k to 12th grade,” Hernandez testified. “Longitudinal data and monitoring attendance are performance indicators that can help schools prevent drop outs.  But it doesn’t start at high school or middle school, I urge you to start your efforts from pre-k and beyond…. Our recommendations are for early identification and parent engagement right from Pre-K to High School.  Doing right by the youngest future workforce will increase the number of high school graduates and increase the employment rates of this workforce.”