What should Indiana do to make sure students can read by grade 3?
By the end of third grade, students are expected to switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Unfortunately, nearly one in five Hoosier third-graders cannot read. This impacts every aspect of their education and can have a profoundly negative effect on their futures, as students who cannot read by third grade are less likely to graduate from high school.
For the benefit of our state, we must ensure all students can read. Demand for skilled talent already outpaces supply and will accelerate in the next decade. If we don’t have more Hoosiers reading on grade level, earning a high school diploma, and completing some form of postsecondary education, we won’t be able to compete economically.
One action we can take is ensuring both pre-K and elementary school educators implement evidence-based methods for teaching reading. A second action is measuring pre-K literacy levels and using that data to target interventions for struggling students.
The pandemic had a profound effect on learning outcomes, with Indiana’s reading proficiency levels for third-graders plummeting from 87% in 2019 to 81% in 2021. However, reading levels were on the decline before the pandemic, and a primary reason is how reading is taught.
Two decades ago, elementary schools in the United States moved from phonics-based reading instruction, where students learn to read by sounding out words, toward the “balanced literacy” method, where students use pictures and memorization to identify words. This method was intended to “balance” two warring schools of thought on how to teach reading. However, the balanced literacy approach hasn’t worked, particularly for children from low-income families.
Fortunately, Indiana recognizes the need for an evidence-based approach. Following Mississippi’s lead—which implemented the “science of reading” and saw its fourth-grade reading results soar—other states have begun implementing phonics-based instruction. Since 2022, Indiana has allocated $170 million—a combination of state dollars and Lilly Endowment grants—to help elementary schools adopt the science of reading and assist colleges in incorporating it into teacher preparation programs.
However, data from Indiana’s Kindergarten Readiness Indicators, which assesses early literacy and math skills for pre-K students, demonstrates reading gaps develop before elementary school. National research finds these gaps are predominantly driven by socioeconomic status. The KRI, originally funded through a partnership between the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and Evansville’s Welborn Baptist Foundation, is Indiana’s first direct, objective measure of early literacy and numeracy skills.
The KRI found only 32% of children enrolled in the state’s On My Way Pre-K program—which serves children from families living below 127% of the federal poverty level—met 2022 readiness benchmarks for literacy skills.
While these results are discouraging, they’ve also armed us with information about which students need help learning how to read. Research finds students demonstrate the most growth in reading performance from kindergarten through first grade, so interventions in these grades are critical to ensuring students learn to read.
To inform how Indiana allocates public and private resources, we should expand the use of the KRI to all state-funded pre-K programs to help us identify and address reading gaps early on. We must also ensure pre-K teachers are trained on science-of-reading practices for early literacy instruction.
Indiana’s reading levels are at a crisis point. By ensuring educators are equipped to teach children to read, and that we have the data to inform interventions, we can help all third-graders learn to read and transition successfully to fourth grade.•
Fiddian-Green is president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, whose mission is to advance the vitality of Indianapolis and the well-being of its people. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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