Mom Angie Gallo remembers years ago when her 3rd grade daughter’s school sent an alert home about reading:
“They tried to tell me she was going to flunk the (state) reading test when she had been on the honor roll,” said Gallo, who’s now a vice president at the Florida PTA. The alert was alarming because 3rd graders can be held back if they don’t get a certain score.
“Am I going to fail?” her little daughter said.
As it turned out, Gallo’s daughter passed that 3rd grade reading exam, and in August, she’ll be graduating from Florida State University.
But tens of thousands of students are still flunking the crucial state reading exam in 3rd grade, state data show, a fearful time for families who want their child to move on to 4th grade.
And even when 3rd graders do pass the state reading exam, they may not be great readers, the Florida Phoenix found.
The Florida Department of Education allows students to pass the exam with a “satisfactory” score – an achievement Level 3 — defined as “may need additional support for the next grade/course.”
It’s the higher achievement levels – 4 and 5 – that show kids are proficient or have an even greater mastery in reading.
Only 30 percent of 3rd graders across the state were considered proficient or showing mastery in reading, according to results released last month from the 2019 reading exam for 3rd graders.
The state education department provides a broader and rosier picture by including in its totals kids who only earned a satisfactory score and may need support for the next grade (Level 3). By doing that, the state data looks a lot better, with 58 percent of 3rd graders passing the 2019 reading exam.
Even still, that means more than 40 percent of Florida’s 3rd graders failed the exam, scoring at the lowest level of achievement – a 1 or 2.
Students who don’t get a score of at least a Level 2 aren’t promoted to 4th grade, though there are several exemptions that allow students to move up a grade, according to the state.
Why is reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade so important?
The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation has been following issues of children at risk, including educational struggles, for many years.
If kids are struggling to read, they risk “ongoing academic difficulties in school, failure to graduate from high school on time and chances of succeeding economically later in life — including individuals’ ability to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and the country’s ability to ensure global competitiveness, general productivity and national security,” a 2013 foundation report found.
Children who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade, the foundation reported, are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than kids who are proficient.
Nicole Mancini is director of elementary learning at Broward County Public Schools, where at least a dozen schools posted some of the highest scores on the 3rd grade reading exam – Levels 4 or 5, meaning proficiency or mastery of the subject.
But students at many other Broward schools struggled, posting scores in the lower levels of achievement, Levels 1 or 2, with some students at risk of being held back.
The district has been working to reduce the number of kids performing at the lowest-level, Mancini said, identifying weak areas such as vocabulary and comprehension. Educators want to do everything they can to avoid holding a child back.
“We’re not a wait-to-see-what-happens (district); we are very proactive in our district,” Mancini said.
Bob Schaeffer is a spokesman for FairTest, an organization that works to end the misuse of standardized testing.
He didn’t mince words when asked about whether kids should be held back if they don’t get a certain score on the 3rd grade reading exam.
“We oppose it strongly,” Schaeffer said. “It is misused, and it does not help. Kids need to learn and there are better ways than to hold kids back.”
At the Florida PTA, Angie Gallo believes holding back 3rd graders is harmful and the state should be putting more funds into Pre-K programs to prepare kids for reading.
“Once you get to the 3rd grade, it’s too late.”
A Closer Look: Here’s a breakdown of statewide data on the 3rd grade reading exam (216,823 students):
Overall, 20 percent of kids scored at the lowest Level 1; 23 percent scored at Level 2; 28 percent, at Level 3; 22 percent, at Level 4, and 8 percent, at Level 5.
Of the 67 counties, St. Johns had the most kids in the proficiency and mastery categories – 51 percent of 3rd graders posted a Level 4 or 5 score.
Following St. Johns, Sarasota County schools showed high achievement, with 42 percent of kids posting Level 4 and 5 scores; At Nassau County schools, 41 percent of students earned Level 4 and 5 scores.
The state also posted average actual scores for the exam, by district and schools – not just levels of achievement.
Statewide, the average score on the 3rd grade reading exams was a 302. That is on the very low end of passing the exam.