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4th Graders’ Reading Proficiency Gap Widens Based On Income

The difference in reading skills between lower-income and higher-income students has widened over the past decade.


Photo: Phil Dowsing Creative (Flickr)

Children who are reading at a proficient level by the fourth grade are less likely to drop out of high school.

More Indiana students are reading proficiently in the fourth grade, but the gap between higher- and lower-income students is growing, according to data the Annie E. Casey Foundation released today.

The study defines higher income students as those above 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and lower income students as those below 185 percent of the poverty level, which are also students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Here are how the numbers break down.

Indiana 4th Graders Proficient In Reading

The Annie E. Casey Foundation bases “proficiency” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test, which categorizes students into four levels based on their abilities: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.

Laura Speer, the associate director of Policy, Research and Data at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says whether a child is reading well by the fourth grade is key to their success later in life.

“Children who aren’t reading proficiently at fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who are, and they are likely to have trouble after that as far as being able to earn money to raise a family,” Speer says.

That can be particularly detrimental to children who already live in low-income households.

Indiana University Associate Professor Ashlyn Nelson studies education policy and says there are some changes that can make a difference. She says 70 percent of the performance gap between high and low income students can be explained by children’s social backgrounds, so helping those students’ families financially can be very beneficial.

“I’m talking about any sort of social safety net program that effectively improves the amount of money and wealth that a family has access to [in order] to support their child’s education growth,” she says, explaining those programs could include a range of options from expanded access to health care to additional funding for early childhood education.

Identifying which in-classroom settings lead to the biggest improvements in reading proficiency can be more difficult.

Indiana began issuing a high-stakes reading test for third graders called the IREAD-3 in 2012. The impact the test is having on student reading levels would likely not be noticeable in the data for a few years, and, Nelson says even then, pinpointing the cause for a change in reading proficiency levels depends on many factors.

“If we just see a change from one year to another, it’s really difficult to know to which policy intervention to attribute that change to,” she says. “Is it because of IREAD or because we hired really good teachers?”

Another interesting shift the report indicates, Nelson says, is the achievement gap appears to becoming linked more closely with income levels than race.

As the data above shows, the gap in reading proficiency between higher- and lower-income students is growing. Data from about the same time-period shows that while there is still a very significant difference between minority and white students‘ reading levels, the gap in Indiana is decreasing.

Other studies have shown similar patterns.

Gretchen Frazee

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter/producer for WFIU and WTIU news. Prior to her current role, Frazee worked as the associate online content coordinator for WFIU/WTIU. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studied multimedia journalism and anthropology. You can follow her on Twitter @gretchenfrazee.

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