18. Reading Proficiency
Strong Foundations For Our Youngest Children

18. NAEP 4th Grade Reading Proficiency Scores

Reading proficiency by the end of 3rd grade, as measured here by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores at the beginning of 4th grade, can be a turning point in a child’s educational career. Prior to the completion of 3rd grade, most students are learning to read. After the completion of 3rd grade, students are reading to learn—using their reading skills to gain information, solve problems and think critically. Fourth grade reading scores serve as a crucial marker in children’s educational development. Reading proficiency also is a lagging indicator of what children know and can do at the time of kindergarten entry (school readiness).

Currently, there is no comparative information across states (and often across subpopulations) to compare children’s development at kindergarten, although select national research shows there are profound differences in children’s school readiness by class, income, and ethnicity. While schools are responsible for narrowing such gaps, research also shows that third grade reading proficiency is strongly correlated with measures of school readiness at the time of kindergarten entry.

What Can the Data Tell Us?

Reading proficiency varies by race and ethnicity as well as by income (Table 28 and Table 29). National averages from 2013 reveal that on the fourth grade reading assessments, 45 percent of white fourth graders scored at or above reading proficiency, compared to only 17 percent of black students and 19 percent of Hispanic students. Washington D.C. shows the largest gaps; 77 percent of white students were at or above fourth grade reading proficiency, compared to 15 percent of black students and 23 percent of Hispanic students.

A similar disparity exists between students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (FRL) and those who are not. FRL eligibility is a proxy for low-income status. To be eligible for free meals, a family must earn less than 130 percent of poverty, and to be eligible for reduced-price meals must earn less than 185 percent of poverty. Nationally, 51 percent of students who were not eligible for FRL scored at or above reading proficiency, compared to only 20 percents of students eligible for FRL. Low-income students (those eligible for FRM) and minority students (black and Hispanic) are less likely to achieve reading proficiency than their white, more affluent counterparts. 

Identifying and addressing disparities in reading proficiency is important because low-achievement in reading has significant long-term consequences in terms of individual earning potential, global competitiveness and general productivity. Often, state “rankings” on fourth grade reading proficiency vary dramatically, not in terms of overall scores but by different subgroups. States with relatively small populations of low-income or non-white children may appear relatively high on overall proficiency rankings, but look much worse when examined by subpopulations. 

Table 28. Percent of 4th grade students at or above proficient in reading by race/ethnicity, U.S. and states, 2013

Table 29. Percent of 4th grade students at or above proficient in reading by eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, U.S. and states, 2013