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.”

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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

State Government Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers Virginia politics and policy. He previously covered education. A northern New York native and Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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