The reading crisis ─ how state policy is targeting grade 3

If there’s a line in the sand for a child’s reading development — and there is – it’s the third grade. Compelling research advises us that children should be reading at grade level by the end of third grade.[1] If not, poor reading will impact their ability to successfully progress through school and meet future grade-level expectations that require basic reading skills for more complex learning to occur. Children unable to read at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time and at greater risk of dropping out of school. Bruce Atchison, director of early learning at the Education Commission of the States (ECS),[2] underscores the gravity of this problem: only “one-third of our nation’s children are meeting this academic milestone [reading at grade level by the end of third grade].” That means two-thirds are not.

What can state leaders (e.g., governors, state legislators, K-12 and higher education department chiefs and other education leaders) do to get the children in our states to be better readers? A new ECS report describes a key tool many states are using ─ policy.

In “Third-grade reading policies,”[3] ECS explains the statutory provisions in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia focused on early grade reading. While the aim of the report is to assist education policymakers and those committed to early childhood literacy to improve early reading success for all students in their states, parents and other caretakers of children should pay close attention to the policies in their state with a key question in mind: Does my state have policies around early childhood reading?[4]

Fueled by the seriousness of the “reading at grade level by grade 3″ issue, a number of states have recently passed policies requiring or recommending that school districts: 1) identify reading deficiencies through state or local assessments, 2) provide interventions for readers struggling in grades kindergarten through third grade, and/or 3) retain outgoing third graders not meeting grade-level expectations.

The ECS report notes that states should “take a comprehensive approach that begins with early, high-quality instruction and rapid, effective interventions.” This requires, of course, high-quality, well-trained teachers. Some states like Ohio and Connecticut are requiring teachers to pass an exam of principles of scientifically research-based reading instruction as a requirement for certification (licensure). This doesn’t mean the teachers can necessarily apply their knowledge effectively, but this seems like a good start.

How do the 50 states and the D.C. stack up on statutory provisions in three areas of action?

  • On identifying reading deficiencies, 35 states plus the D.C. require a reading assessment in at least one grade, pre-kindergarten through grade 3. The assessments are a mix of state-mandated and local school district approaches.
  • On providing interventions for struggling readers, 31 states plus the D.C. require or recommend that school districts offer some type of intervention or remediation for struggling readers for pre-kindergarten through grade 3. Some states require specific interventions; others let school districts choose from a list of suggested interventions.
  • On retaining outgoing third graders not meeting grade-level expectations in reading, 15 states plus the D.C. require holding back these students. Three additional states allow students to be retained based on a recommendation from a teacher, parent or school superintendent.

What are the key interventions to help struggling early readers? The ECS report lists eleven that states either require or recommend in policy:

  • assignment to an Academic Improvement Program (11 states)
  • assignment to a different teacher (6 states plus the D.C.)
  • implementation of a Home Reading Program (11 states)
  • online or computer-based instruction (4 states)
  • instruction outside of school hours including extended day and extended year (20 states plus the D.C.)
  • transition classes ─ multiple grade levels (4 states)
  • involvement of a Reading Specialist (6 states)
  • supplemental instruction during regular school hours (20 states)
  • individual or group tutoring (14 states plus the D.C.)
  • instruction tailored specifically to students’ need (12 states plus the D.C.)
  • summer school or summer reading program (18 states plus the D.C.)

If your child lives in a state that is not among the states with policy, should you be worried? At a minimum, you need to know where your child is at in terms of grade-level expectations in reading early. Only 23 states plus the D.C. require parental notification of a student’s reading need, interventions in place and, if applicable, the possibility a student may be retained. And not all states conduct reading assessments at the same times in a student’s reading development. For example, 29 states plus the D.C. call for reading assessments from kindergarten through grade 3 or from pre-kindergarten through grade 3; four states in grade 3; two states in grades 2-3; and one state in kindergarten and grade 2.

However frequently the reading assessments are conducted, it’s vital to understand where a child is at in reading development ─ and to know early so that appropriate interventions can be implemented.

The ECS report provides a good overview of how many states are trying to address through policy the line in the sand ─ the third grade reading crisis. Time will tell if these policies make a difference, if states in which these policies are enacted result in more children meeting the important milestone of reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

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P.S.  The White House Summit on Early Education (Dec. 16th) included a focus on the importance of reading at grade level and the efforts of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading: Third Grade Reading Success Matters — <>


[1] Emily Workman, “Third-grade reading policies,” December 2014 <>

[2] Education Commission of the States was created by states, for states, in 1965. ECS tracks state policy trends in pre-kindergarten to postsecondary education and beyond; translates academic research; and as a nonpartisan organization provides unbiased advice and creates opportunities for state leaders (governors, state legislators, K-12 and higher education department chiefs, other education leaders) to learn from one another. See <>

[3] Emily Workman in ECS report, December 2014

[4] Check out your state’s info by reading the full ECS report: <>