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Reading Gap Between Wealthy and Poor Students Widens, Study Says

The gap in reading proficiency between lower- and higher-income fourth graders has grown by 20 percent in the past decade, according to a new report.

The gap in reading proficiency between lower- and higher-income fourth graders has grown by 20 percent in the past decade, says a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Eighty percent of low-income fourth-graders do not read at their grade level compared to 49 percent of their wealthier counterparts, according to the report, "Early Reading Proficiency in the United States," which is based on data from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Overall, although improvements have been made in the last 10 years, 66 percent of all fourth graders are not proficient in reading, a level the researchers called “unacceptably low in an economic environment that requires increasing levels of education and skills for family-sustaining jobs.”

By 2020, the United States is expected to face a shortage of 1.5 million workers with college degrees and a surplus of 6 million unemployed people without a high school diploma, the report says.

“The research is pretty clear – grade level reading by the end of third grade is a pretty good predictor of which children will have the most success in middle school and high school, and which children will end up graduating from high school,” said Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Kids who read on grade level by the end of third grade can graduate from high school at higher rates and this includes low-income children.”

That can make all the difference for a child’s future prospects, Smith said. “In the world we live in today, high school graduation is the portal to college and careers and post-secondary credentials needed to succeed in a global economy, to succeed in military service, to succeed in college and in many respects to succeed in life.”

According to the Casey Foundation report, by the time children are 8-years-old, especially those living in low-income families, many have not met the developmental “milestones” they need for future success. To reach these milestones, children need to be physically healthy, socially and emotionally on track and exposed to language as often as possible, research shows.

“There’s what we call an inconvenient truth: That there is a significant number of kids who will find it difficult to succeed even in good schools with effective teachers,” Smith said. “Those are the kids who start out so far behind that it is difficult if not impossible for them to catch up by third grade.”

The key to preventing kids from falling behind later on, he said, is to make sure that fewer start kindergarten with undetected and untreated social-emotional challenges, developmental delays, hearing and vision impairment and other correctable health issues.

In nearly every state, the reading gap between low- and high-income students increased in the last 10 years. In 12 states and the District of Columbia, the gap widened by more than 30 percent, with the largest increases in D.C., Hawaii and Tennessee.

Disparities are also apparent among the five largest racial groups. According to the study, 83 percent of black students, 81 percent of Latino students, 78 percent of American Indian students, 55 percent of white students and 49 percent of Asian students are not proficient.

Students who are dual-language learners had a significantly higher percentage of non-proficiency in reading with 93 percent. According to the study, dual-language learners are one of only a few groups that did not see an improvement in the last 10 years. Children with disabilities had a rate of 89 percent.