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Third Grade Reading Laws: A Look at the Leading States

New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team recently released From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth-3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers. This comprehensive report ranks states on 65 policy indicators in seven policy areas that promote strong literacy skills by the end of third grade. States are grouped into one of three categories -- crawling, toddling, or walking -- across all seven policy areas combined and within each individual policy area.

It should come as no surprise that one policy area we focus on is the specific nature of each state’s third grade reading law. Due to the growing evidence highlighting the importance of achieving reading proficiency by the end of third grade, many states have passed legislation aimed at improving third grade reading and providing targeted interventions for students struggling to reach proficiency.

The importance of achieving reading proficiency by the end of third grade is hard to overstate. Recent research suggests that students who do not achieve proficiency by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time than their proficient classmates. And if a non-proficient third grader lives in a family that is poor for at least a year then they are six and a half times less likely to graduate on time. While there is always hope that a struggling reader will eventually catch up, the evidence suggests that interventions for struggling readers after third grade are rarely as effective as those that take place in the early years. With statistics like these, it’s no wonder why organizations such as The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading have focused so much of their efforts on ensuring that more students meet grade-level reading benchmarks by the end of third grade.

Our report evaluates states’ third grade reading laws on eight criteria (listed below). States with reading laws should require annual reading assessments for students in kindergarten through third grade in order to assist school staff in tracking the reading progress of each individual student from year to year. Ideally, state law would require literacy assessments to be administered even before students begin kindergarten. When we say “assessment” here, we don’t mean subjecting pre-K students to rigorous, time-intensive tests, but rather utilizing age-appropriate activities to capture essential early literacy skills such as letter recognition.

These kinds of early literacy assessments allow teachers to identify struggling students early on and intervene before the students get too far behind. And because early literacy intervention is so important, it’s imperative that state reading laws require intervention before the third grade so that struggling readers have plenty of time to catch up. It’s also important that parents are kept informed about their child’s reading progress so that they’re able to engage in appropriate reading activities at home to help improve their child’s reading skills.

Several states with third grade reading laws require that students who are not reading proficiently by the third grade be retained for another year. The thinking is that struggling readers should have the benefit of another year of third grade to improve before they are promoted to fourth grade where content across the subject areas becomes more complex. Our report actually penalizes states whose laws require retention. Why is this? Several studies suggest that being retained is associated with later negative impacts, such as a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. Retention is also expensive for local education agencies. Because of the negative social and financial impacts of grade retention, we penalize states whose reading laws require retention but also reward states that allow for exemptions from grade retention.

State policies concerning third grade reading laws vary significantly across the country. In fact, 14 states have no third grade reading law on the books at all. These states were not rated in this policy area. On the other end of the spectrum, the map below shows the six states that stand out due to their promising third grade reading law: New York, Virginia, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, and Colorado. New York is the only state that earns the maximum amount of points possible in this policy area. Of the states that do have a third grade reading law in effect, 17 states are “walking” toward a strong third grade reading law, nine states and DC are “toddling,” and ten states are “crawling.” Again, it should be pointed out that 14 states have no state reading law on the books at all.

With only one state meeting all of our indicators for a strong third grade reading law, most states with these laws have a lot of work to do in order to strengthen the law that is currently on the books. This is important and necessary work, but having a specific third grade reading law isn’t the only way to go about it. Some states without reading laws on the books right now are still heavily engaged in work to improve children’s literacy outcomes. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight one of these states."