Daily Archives: June 10, 2010

Hubbub Explainer: What's 3rd Grade Reading Level?

Published June 10, 2010

One of these kids will probably graduate high school on time. The other may not. Can you guess which one will succeed?


These are third graders at John Tobin Elementary in Cambridge, recorded in a story last year by WBUR’s Monica Brady-Myerov. And, OK, we don’t know for sure what will happen to either of them. But the data show, time and again, that a third grader’s reading skills are the best indicator of how he or she will perform in high school.

Third grade is a critical year. “When they leave third grade, there is a major shift — from learning to read, to reading to learn,” said Jaime Frost, a literacy coach, in Monica’s story.

A new study (PDF), commissioned by Boston nonprofit Strategies for Children and conducted by Harvard researchers, put a gloomy statistic in the spotlight: 43 percent of third graders in the state can’t read at the third-grade level. The numbers get even worse for minority students.

An 11-year-old reads. (Chris Gardner/AP)

An 11-year-old reads. (Chris Gardner/AP)

Researchers started by examining MCAS scores for every kid in Massachusetts. I asked the lead author, Nonie Lesaux, how a standardized test could possibly gauge a kid’s reading skills. Basically, she says, a student reads a passage and then has to answer questions about that passage.

If you’re not a proficient reader, Lesaux says: “You will have missed something. You won’t have picked up a certain amount of nuance. You won’t have made an inference that you were supposed to make. You might not have understood some figurative language that was in there, which hinders your ability to answer that question.

“You might just not have read it fast enough, so that you had the leftover energy to devote to making sense of it. The one thing is, if your reading is too slow, then you can’t remember what you read from the beginning to the end.”

Lesaux says three-quarters of children who fail the MCAS in third grade will struggle throughout their academic career.

But writing a test to be understood by the “average” third grader is really tricky. Millions of dollars and a lot of research goes into writing clear, culture-neutral, readable tests and textbooks.

How Is Readable Defined? What’s A “Third-Grade Reading Level?”

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What We're Working On: Thursday

Published June 10, 2010

  • Meghna Chakrabarti is booking the researcher who found nearly half of Massachusetts third graders can’t read at a third-grade level. I am reporting a sidebar that seeks to explain what “third-grade reading level” means.
  • Ted Siefer is following a possible U.S. Senate vote to block EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, which followed from a Supreme Court ruling on Massachusetts v. EPA.
  • Mark Navin is producing a segment about the breakaway Anglican church in Amesbury.
  • David Boeri is profiling the Bangladeshi valedictorian from Boston English High School.
  • Bob Oakes and Lisa Tobin are attending the final graduation of Provincetown High School, which is closing.
  • Jesse Logan is following a lockdown at a high school in Milton, a change in policy at Brockton Hospital’s ER after a woman with a sick infant was denied help, and a state education commissioner’s response to calls for preschool teachers to be better educated.