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From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth- 3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers

Only about one-third of all children attending school in the United States can read well by fourth grade. Outcomes for the country’s most vulnerable students are even worse. How can state policymakers lessen the achievement gap and improve reading outcomes for all children? Out today, our new report and data visualization tool offer ideas on birth-3rd grade policies that support children’s literacy development and rank all 50 states and Washington, DC on whether they have these policies in place.

From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth- 3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers, finds that most states are not taking a comprehensive approach when it comes to developing children’s literacy skills. Based on our 65 indicators in seven policy areas (listed below), 11 states are Crawling toward making sure children are able to read well by third grade. The majority of states, 34, and Washington, DC, areToddling, meaning they are showing progress in some areas, but clearly lacking in others. Only five states are Walking: New York, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. No state is running.

While these five states are ahead of the pack, all states have a long road ahead. Even New York, the highest scoring state, only earned the equivalent of a C in letter grades.

We measure states on a broad set of policy indicators that can help ensure children are on track to read on grade level by the end of third grade. For instance, states that prioritize the preparation and development of teachers of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and the early elementary grades, as well as leaders of elementary schools and child care centers, are in a better position to meet this goal. But while a focus on educators is salient, it’s not enough on its own. States must also have in place:

  • Strong standards, assessments, and data systems;
  • Equitable funding;
  • High-quality pre-K;
  • Full-Day Kindergarten;
  • Supports for dual language learners;
  • And when they exist, third grade reading laws that focus on identification and intervention over holding children back.

Some of the highest scoring states might come as a surprise, such as West Virginia, which doesn’t always rise to the top on most state rankings. West Virginia stands out because of its robust state pre-K program that includes basic quality indicators; it also requires districts to offer full-day kindergarten under state statute. The other leading states also rose to the top in one or more policy areas.

New York scored relatively high in all categories. New York has a state-funded pre-K program that serves both three- and four-year-olds, requires low adult-child ratios, and requires teachers to have a bachelor’s degree with a specialization in early childhood education. For kindergarten, the state doesn’t require districts to offer full-day programs, but the overwhelming majority of its kindergarteners have access to them. New York also doesn’t allow districts to charge tuition for kindergarten and funds full-day kindergarten, when provided, at the same level as first grade. The state also has strong policies in place when it comes to educator quality. Kindergarten teachers must have an early childhood education license, and both early childhood and elementary teacher candidates pass a reading pedagogy test. The state also requires that licensed child care centers have directors and lead teachers with at least some college-level coursework in early childhood education.

Oklahoma has one of the nation’s most robust state pre-K programs. Oklahoma pre-K includes basic quality indicators; for instance, teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree with a specialization in early childhood education. Oklahoma boasts the highest score in the Educator category. The Sooner State requires kindergarten teachers to have an early childhood education license and requires that both early childhood and elementary teacher candidates pass a reading pedagogy test. However, the bar is not set high for lead teachers in licensed child care centers, who are not required to have more than a high school diploma.

Connecticut ranked well because it has more equitable funding structures than most other states. Connecticut funds pre-K through its school funding formula, provides a level of per-pupil funding above the national average, and has a progressive funding distribution, meaning there is a mechanism in place to help ensure that low-income districts receive slightly more funding than higher-income districts.The state also has some strong policies in place for the early education workforce. Both early childhood and elementary school teacher candidates must pass a reading pedagogy test. Lead teachers in child care centers must have at least some college-level coursework in early childhood education. However, this standard does not hold for child care center directors, who are not required to have more than a high school diploma.

While Wisconsin is not leading in any one category, the state scores fairly well on most indicators, specifically for its equitable funding and third grade reading law. At this time, Wisconsin funds pre-K programs through the state’s K–12 school funding formula. Wisconsin has a progressive funding distribution, providing its highest-poverty districts with slightly more funding than its low-poverty districts. To promote third grade reading proficiency, Wisconsin has focused on early identification of and intervention for struggling readers. The state requires annual reading assessments for students in pre-K through third grade and state law does not require retention for third grade students who do not meet grade-level expectations in reading. Research shows holding students back can do more harm than good and is costly for districts.

Many states are making some progress by addressing bits and pieces of a birth-through-third grade approach to help build strong readers. But what is made clear by our policy scan is that no state is running. They all have a long road ahead to creating a coherent and connected set of policies that flow and fit together, providing children with the support and opportunities they need not only to read well by the end of third grade but also to flourish throughout their schooling and in life.

Learn more about all states in the report and on Atlas. You may find this blog post on how to navigate Atlas helpful. Also check out our companion reports that take deeper dives into state policies and local efforts in two states: Massachusettsand Minnesota.

Update 11/23/2015 at 2:25 pm: This post has been updated to reflect corrections made to Atlas data under the Educator Policy Area (Lead Teacher Educational Requirement and Center Director Educational Requirements). Updates involved changes to Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oklahoma."