A new report on elementary school reading scores was released this week, and the results are sobering for the state of Kansas — though numbers from the Kansas Department of Education and local state assessments tell a much different story.
In a KIDS COUNT data snapshot, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found a majority of children in Kansas are not reading proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade — a key predictor of a student’s future educational and economic success.
“Early Reading Proficiency in the United States” found 62 percent of Kansas children are not reading at grade level at the start of fourth grade. The report found a gap between students from higher-income families and those from lower-income families — 78 percent of lower-income children not meeting the benchmark compared, to only 46 percent among their higher-income peers.
The initial finding — a majority of students not reading at grade level by grade four, was a bit of a surprise to Sheila Wendling, Director of Instructional Services for USD 373. The other finding, the gap between students based on financial background, was not. She did say that data doesn't always tell the whole story.
"There is correlation, but not always," Wendling said. "I like to tell my story. I came from a very poor family but I did just fine in school. They do tend to go hand in hand, but it is not always that way."
The 62 percent number does not hold true for Newton schools — and does not agree with recent state assessments.
Newton USD 373's most recent state assessment data shows 83 percent of students in the district reading at or above grade level — and at grade four 87 percent of students at or above grade level.
"We have worked very hard (on literacy) in the district," Wendling said. "We have created a 90 minute uninterrupted block for reading K through six. That means there's no breaks for recess or other things. This is research based."
Based on test results — and the district tests three times a year using Aimsweb assessments — additional time is given to students who are struggling based on Multi-Tier System of Support guidelines.
According to the Kansas Department of Education, 2013 state assessment results showed 70.2 percent of all third-grade students receiving either free or reduced-priced lunches were at or above proficient in reading, down from 75.3 percent in 2012. The department uses eligibility for the lunch program as an indicator of poverty and those students who are potentially at-risk of academic failure.
"That, along with good instruction, is making a difference," Wendling said.
Two earlier reports from the Casey Foundation — Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and Early Warning Confirmed — found children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school, are less likely to fall into poverty and are more likely to find a job that can adequately support their families.
“When a child isn’t reading proficiently, that has negative implications for academic achievement and job readiness, as well as the economic security of future generations of Kansans,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.
In Nov. of 2013 Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback proposed a new reading initiative aimed at boosting proficiency by using $12 million in each of the next two years from federal assistance funds aimed at low-income families.
The program, Brownback said, would be paid for through the Department for Children and Families using funds from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program that typically provides cash assistance to families in poverty.
A number of high-poverty urban and rural school districts were targeted through after-school reading programs. The program will be evaluated by education researchers at the University of Kansas to determine effectiveness.
The governor has focused on improving grade-school reading proficiency since he first ran for governor in 2010. In 2013 he proposed legislation to hold back students who were not proficient in reading. The measure was heavily modified before stalling in the Legislature.
"We do need to look at how students are doing and there is strong research that if a student is not reading at grade level then we need to catch them as soon as we can. The larger gap there is, the more the student will struggle," Wendling said.
— The Associated Press Contributed to this report.