Double Jeopardy: How Third Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation

A recent study
produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation confirms what educators and
researchers have long hypothesized: reading at grade level by the third grade
is a critical indicator as to whether students will graduate from high school.
This study found a strong link between graduation rates and third-grade reading
levels, discovering that students who don’t read at grade level by the third
grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers
who are proficient readers.

To determine the correlation between a student’s ability to
read on grade level by the third grade, and his/her likelihood to graduate (by
the age of 19) researchers collected data on 3,975 students born between 1979
and 1989. Reading progress was tracked using the Peabody Individual Achievement
Reading subtest (the database shows whether kids graduate from school by the
age of 19). To make reporting more consistent with the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) the researchers divided reading performance scores
into three groups: proficient, basic, and below basic. Furthermore, to gain a
better understanding of the impact that poverty can have on reading proficiency,
researchers surveyed students’ families every two years, asking them questions
about their economic status.

The findings are stark. While 88 percent of students
nationwide graduate high school by the age of 19, this fluctuates dramatically
for students with different levels of reading proficiency in the third grade.
Among proficient readers only four percent fail to graduate; however, students
scoring below basic proficiency in third grade reading account for 63 percent
of those who don’t graduate from high school. Unsurprisingly, third-grade
reading is hugely predictive of success later in school and in life.

Poverty also predicts whether a student will graduate from
high school. Twenty-two percent of students who live in poverty don’t graduate
from high school and this number jumps to 32 percent for those students who
have spent more than half their lifetime in poverty. Subsequently students
coming from poverty-stricken families are in “double jeopardy” – they are more
likely to have lower reading scores and thus be at higher risk of not
graduating. Twenty-six percent of children experiencing both poverty and low
reading scores fail to graduate from high school.

In the 2009-10 school year, 10 percent of all third grade
student who took the Ohio Achievement Assessment test had a below basic reading
proficiency. When broken down further 17 percent of students coming from
economically disadvantaged families had below basic
proficiency in third-grade reading. Furthermore, only 71 percent of
economically disadvantage students in Ohio graduated last year. Ohio must find
a way to increase third-grade reading scores among all students to bolster
their chances of graduating later on in life.

Double Jeopardy:
How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Donald J. Hernandez
April 2011