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Grade 3 students lagging on reading

Almost half score below proficient; overhaul sought

By June Wu
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2010

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Almost half of Massachusetts third-graders are not proficient readers, a sobering statistic in a new report that calls for an overhaul of reading programs across the state to reach children at an early age.

The report, commissioned by the Boston-based Strategies for Children and scheduled to be released today, urges state educators and education policy-makers to refocus literacy efforts on improving language development skills, starting with toddlers, with the aim of closing achievement gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We know that we’re not doing a good enough job,’’ said Nonie Lesaux, the study’s lead author and researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We know that a lot of dollars are being spent. But the data would suggest that we’re not having nearly the impact that we ought to be having.’’

Third-grade reading proficiency is an indicator of later academic success, Lesaux said, and a large majority of children who struggle with reading in the third grade are less likely to graduate from high school.

Although Massachusetts has boasted strong national test scores — the state had the nation’s highest fourth-grade reading score last year — Lesaux emphasized that school districts across the state have long struggled with socioeconomic achievement gaps.

Last year, 65 percent of low-income third grade students scored below proficient on the MCAS reading test. And overall, the percentage of third-graders receiving below-proficient scores has hovered around 40 percent over the last decade.

To close the achievement gap and raise the state’s stagnant third-grading reading levels, Lesaux and her team recommended a more systematic and intensive approach to develop language skills from an early age.

“We tend to sprinkle programs that aren’t intense or deep enough to really make a difference in terms of kids’ literacy and proficiency,’’ said Richard Weissbourd, chairman of the report’s advisory committee and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They don’t really add up in the way we’d like them to.’’

Secretary of Education Paul Reville praised the report as a “very important call to action,’’ and acknowledged the challenges of addressing reading proficiency within a tight budget. This year, Massachusetts provided cities and towns $4 million for literacy programs.

“Right now we don’t have nearly as much money as we’d like to have to do the kind of work that we’d want to do in early literacy,’’ Reville said.

To ensure effective use of limited funding, Lesaux said, existing programs should track measures of child-language development and proficiency and reallocate funds accordingly.

“What we want to do is ensure that the money is as well spent as it can be,’’ Lesaux said. “We want to make sure that what we’re doing makes a difference.’’

The responsibility of improving reading proficiency, the report added, falls on multiple parties, ranging from school districts to supportive parents to pediatricians.

Robert Sege, director of Boston Medical Center’s division of ambulatory pediatrics, noted the importance of open communication between health care professionals, parents, and schools.

“We need to do a better job of empowering parents to work with schools to meet individual needs and of partnering with schools to find out how we can communicate results of assessments,’’ Sege said.

Parents of children not yet enrolled in primary school often turn to pediatricians with questions about language development, Sege said, which signals that health care professionals can play a crucial role in encouraging literacy.

In Massachusetts, 200 doctors’ offices and health centers participate in Reach Out and Read, a childhood literacy program founded by the Boston Medical Center in 1989 that provides families with such childhood staples as “Where the Wild Things Are’’ and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.’’

“We still have a long ways to go,’’ Lesaux said. “We need to increase opportunities to learn for all children, but particularly those who are underserved.’’

June Wu can be reached at jwu@globe.com.

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