Fewer Virginia students are passing third-grade standardized reading tests, a concerning trend for what experts describe as the most important predictor of a student’s future academic success.

Across the state, the pass rate for the third-grade reading Standards of Learning test fell for the second straight year, and the average score has plummeted from 84 percent to 72 percent in the past decade.

A student’s general reading development starts in kindergarten with learning the basics — turning pages, reading left to right and learning letters, for example. In first grade, students are identifying words, and in second, they’re reading longer and more complex words.

Then comes third grade, where the switch is made from learning to read to reading to learn — a step that will, studies suggest, make or break future learning. Once students start fourth grade, research says, as much as half of what they’re being taught will be incomprehensible if they’re not proficient at the end of third grade.

Studies repeatedly have drawn a connection between poor reading performance on the third-grade level and a failure to graduate high school on time.

“The decline begins in third grade and students continue to drop through high school in their ability to read silently with comprehension,” said Peter Dewitz, a Charlottesville-based author who wrote a book on reading instruction and is an adjunct professor at Mary Baldwin University.

Dewitz said a spike in screen time and a drop in the amount of time children spend reading are among reasons for the decline.

The year-over-year drop in third-grade reading scores for the past academic year — from 75 to 72 percent — is worse than all reading tests across the state, which dropped only 1 percentage point to 79, according to data released in August by the Virginia Department of Education.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane acknowledged the problem in a call with reporters last month.

“We constantly are thinking about the third-grade student achievement,” Lane said. “We’re going to continue to have conversations with our school leaders around the state on how we can intervene earlier with our students to make a difference.”

Local school districts mirrored the statewide trend with fewer students in Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties passing the critical test last school year.

Lane, the state’s pre-K-12 leader, said the children most in need of help preparing for the test need to begin getting that help long before they reach the classroom.

“In many cases, there’s an achievement gap on the first day of school,” Lane said. “So if we’re ever going to eliminate achievement gaps, we have to have a unified system of early childhood.”

Virginia currently spends about $1.37 billion on early childhood education services, according to the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s most recent funding report.

That means about 2.6 percent of the state’s total budget goes toward such programs as the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which targets at-risk 4-year-olds who are not served by Head Start.

It hasn’t been enough. Not only are the pass rates getting worse, but so are the scores.

The average scaled score for third-grade reading this year was 430, down 3 points from last year and 43 points compared with 2007-08. The state changed the tests six years ago to make them more rigorous.

Standards of Learning test scores range from 0 to 600, with scores below 400 considered failing, 400-499 being proficient and 500-600 being advanced.

“If the child does not read well by the end of third grade, the evidence suggests that he or she will continue to have difficulty unless the schools intervenes in some way,” Dewitz said.

Dewitz said pass rates are dropping because educators are shaping their teaching around the test, which includes short reading passages, and children aren’t spending enough time reading.

“As the volume of reading declines, children are exposed to fewer words and their vocabulary growth is stunted,” he said. “With less robust vocabulary, comprehension is impaired.”

He added later: “With the ever-present tablets, smartphones, computers and TVs, it is difficult to sell reading in the face of this competition. Reading requires both skill and will, and schools seem to have to forgotten about desire.”

***

Nowhere in the area were pass rates worse than in Richmond, where slightly over half of third-grade students passed the test.

“We’ve taken all the fun out of reading,” said Linda Owen, a retired librarian who now represents Richmond’s 9th District on the School Board. “We’re teaching to the test and that’s the problem.”

The district’s 5 percentage point drop outpaced the state decline and continued a troubling trend for the school system. In six years, RPS has fallen to a 53 percent pass rate on the third-grade reading test from an 81 percent pass rate, according to state data.

“It’s a major concern, as third-grade reading proficiency is a major determinant for future success in school,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras.

A 2015 study from the Center for Public Education found that one in six children who aren’t reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate that’s four times higher than that for proficient readers.

The district’s strategic plan, which is scheduled to be voted on Sept. 4, includes developing a literacy plan to have every RPS third-grader reading at or above grade level.

Fairfield Court Elementary School in the city’s East End had the lowest pass rate at 24 percent, mirroring a massive drop in the school’s test scores this year. The average pass rate across the four tests the school administers nosedived 34 percent.

Just over half of the school system’s 25 elementary schools had a majority of students pass the test. Mary Munford’s 86 percent passing was the highest, while Swansboro’s 33 percent gains were the largest compared to last year. Data were not available for George W. Carver Elementary School.

Chesterfield saw a 4 percentage point dive with 76 percent of third-grade students passing, while Hanover dipped slightly from 82 percent to 80 percent, and Henrico fell 4 points to 73 percent.

Students whom the state describes as being eligible for free or reduced meals, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money are 24 percent less likely to pass the third-grade reading test than their peers, according to state data.

About 60 percent of black students in Virginia public schools passed the third-grade reading test last school year, which is 12 percentage points below the state average.

Nationally, more than 80 percent of students from low-income families don’t read proficiently at the end of third grade, according to federal data.

While it’s an urban myth that prisons use third-grade reading scores to predict future inmate populations, not being able to read proficiently does extend the school-to-prison pipeline.

A national study from Begin to Read found that “85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.”

“If you’re struggling in the third grade with reading, and that perpetuates every year, by the time you’re getting to high school and you’re getting to the point where you’re deciding whether to go to college or a skilled trade, you’ve spent up to 10 years being demoralized because you can’t read,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. “Literacy is needed for everything.”

The first-term delegate suggested adding more support staff to schools and rethinking what the focus of elementary school education should be.

“If a kid can’t read, write and do basic math leaving elementary school, they’re going to really struggle,” he said.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education.

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(13) comments

carole hess

or we could name all the schools after Obama

DOUGLAS KINNEY

Poor reading ain’t nothin’ compared to the lousy grammar on Facebook.

RONALD HAYES

Electronic devices and the constant use of the internet / computers has and will continue to destroy education. Education has failed our kids because our they are no longer taught basics and fundamentals. Kids are no longer required to master phonics, English grammar, mathematics, and the simply cannot write or spell. ! Why because educators have thrown all this to the wind and instead turned to electronic devices (computers, cell phones, tablets etc.). Their answers are this is the "new" "innovative" "progressive way". I say this is " BALONEY". After 5th grade English grammar is no longer taught (there are no English grammar books). After 5 grade we teach grammar visa be writing. If the kids can't read, spell and / or write just how are we teaching grammar through writing? Learning multiplication tables has been tossed because it is considered(busy work). That's why we have computers. Quiz a child about a ruler. How many ounces make a pound? What is a cubic yard? What is square yard? How many cups make a pint? What is an improper fraction. How do you make change from a $20 bill if the purchase was $15,87? What is the capital of Vermont? What year did WWII end? Who was President after FDR? Your will be amazed the results you get. Instead, It is all about making sure kids have fun learning and making everything a "game". The academic discipline (having textbooks and having to read and has long since been tossed). Consequently, children are not made to read and too much emphasis and resources are directed to computers and electronic devices. Reading is a fundamental. It is a basic. It is built on constant drill, comprehension, correct spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and practice. I attended Richmond & Henrico Public school from 1956 thru 1969. I was taught and I learned how to read. I was taught basics, fundamentals, and concepts (yes including math and history). The quality education I received from public education well prepared me for college. Why? Because my teachers set standards and I was made to be disciplined. I was taught how to think and use basic fundamentals. I was not allowed to use anything but my brain. The emphasis was always on learning not on making games out of everything and having fun. I agree having fun is important but is should not be the primary focus. Academic success lies in demanding discipline and adhering to rigorous standards and expectations. The answer is NOT public education teaching kids younger than 5 years old. A 5 year old goes to Kindergarten which literally means 'garden for the children')[1] is a preschool educational approach based on playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition from home to school" While limited academics are and should be taught in kindergarten this is a "transition period from home to school". It is all about adjusting and having positive experiences. Children 4 and younger need to be children. Quit trying to do to much to soon and let them be kids and that includes no public education before 5 years old

Stick with the basics, quit focusing on electronic devices, software. Demand discipline and set standards, teach fundamentals, concepts, focus and emphasis English grammar, spelling, vocabulary and comprehension and you will have good reading scores as well as increases in your other scores.

Fred Mertz

Incompetant teachers are not held accountable for these results and face no consequences. Education degrees are worthless and the recipients are the lowest achievers in all Universties.

CAROL WOLF

Mr. Mertz: I cannot tell if your comment, replete with spelling and grammar errors, is meant as a joke or proof that you had an inadequate education. At a certain point, adults need to stop blaming their elementary school teachers for their inherent laziness and invest in a dictionary.

Fred Demey

Carol, you are right to an extent, parents must take responsibility for the education of the children, and a country wide voucher system would greatly help in that area.

Fred Demey

Yep, that's a big part of it, but the education establishment and administrations aren't about teaching children to read, it is all about the indoctrination of the children that drives them. A voucher system that allows parents to determine where their children attend school, is what we need to right this horrible wrong.

John Martin

poverty

TRACY PETERS

"We've taken all the fun out of reading,"

Since when has any kid in school ever enjoyed reading, or for that matter enjoyed going to school? I doubt the person who made such a statement ever enjoyed reading, doing homework and coming in before it got dark outside so as to study themselves.

Parenting has more to do with the performance rating for reading, math or anything else, and I do not think it matters whether they are using books dull books like “See Jack Run” or more fun stuff like “Playboy or Playgirl”.

The real reasons Billy and Betty will never be found is due to PC, where any indication of parents being the problem will always be seen somehow either related to hating of poor folks or racism. Period.

TRACY PETERS

Nah …. just joshing ….. all we got's to do is throw some more money at it and Shazam, problem solved. Period.

RODERICK PERKINSON

The "state" basically raises and feeds many of our children as it is. If the parent(s) don't care if their children read, what makes you think the "state" will succeed? This has been going on since the 60's. Endless programs, grants and studies. It's the Culture stupid. Government has helped destroy it and continues to think it can fix it . It can't. Fifty years of endless articles on what the next government program will be and how it will fix the problem. All we have to show for it is places like Chicago. No personal responsibility. Once you destroy a culture of responsibility, it is not something easily fixed. One would think that 50 years of government failure would just maybe tell you something???

Fred Demey

Excellent point, get educating children out of the direct hands of government, they are doing a lousy, horrible job of it.

Ron Melancon

All this money spent..... and we get results like this? It’s not the meals tax.... maybe it’s the lack of toilet tissue? Hey maybe just maybe it’s the teachers who teach to a test and our broken homes.

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