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

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Low income students who are not proficient in reading by the third grade have a much lower chance of graduating high school, according to a study released last month.

One out of every six children who are not reading proficient by the third grade do not graduate by the age of 19, according to “Double Jeopardy,” which was released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in April.

Low-income children who are not proficient readers by the third grade are at the highest risk of not graduating. Twenty-six percent of non-proficient third graders from low-income families do not graduate on time, compared with 9 percent of non-proficient readers from better economic backgrounds.

“Poor children offer additional disadvantages,” said Donald Hernandez, study author and professor of sociology at Hunter College at the City University of New York “The key to success is developing training programs that will lead [low-income parents] to middle-class incomes.”

Early reading proficiency does not seem to be as big of a determining factor for children in families above the poverty level. Nearly all children (98 percent) who were proficient readers in the third grade graduated on time, but 91 percent who were not proficient early on managed to finish before age 19.

Among the low-income children, that third grade proficiency mark had more weight. Twenty-six percent of the non-proficient readers failed to make it through high school on time; meanwhile, 89 percent of the proficient readers did complete high school on schedule. 

The responses to these risk factors should be increased access to high quality early education and development of career training programs for low-income parents, said Hernandez. In regard to early education, he recommends full-day kindergarten classes and summer enrichment programs targeted at poor youth.

But because of budget deficits, pre-kindergarten programs are being given less funds, and some are being cut altogether, he said. “We are disinvesting in early education and that’s the opposite of what we need to be doing.”

The study tracks the progress of 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989. Proficiency, in terms of this study, is measured by the Peabody Individual Achievement Test, Reading Recognition subtest. According to the NAEP Reading Achievement Levels by Grade report cited in the study, “students performing at the Proficient level should be able to integrate and interpret texts and apply their understanding of the text to draw conclusions and make evaluations.”

Children are characterized in the report as experiencing poverty if in at least one of the five years they are interviewed between second and eleventh grade, they lived in a family with an income below the federal poverty threshold. In the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, children and their mother were interviewed biennially in even-numbered years between grades two and eleven.