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Racial, Socio-economic Gaps in Reading Skills Could Set Back NC Workforce by 2020

RALEIGH – A new KIDS COUNT data snapshot finds that that 65 percent of children in North Carolina are not reading proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade – a key predictor of a student’s future educational and economic success. If this trend continues, North Carolina will not have enough skilled workers for an increasingly competitive global economy by the end of this decade.

Furthermore, Early Reading Proficiency in the United States finds that children from lower-income North Carolina families continue to struggle disproportionately with grade-level reading. 78 percent of children from low-income families are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, while only 48 percent of children from higher-income families experience the same setback.

“Third grade reading proficiency is a critical benchmark for all children, regardless of their families’ level of income. Children who aren’t reading proficiently by fourth grade are likely to fall behind their peers since much of their curriculum in other subject areas will be indecipherable,” said Laila Bell, Director of Research at NC Child.

In recent years, the North Carolina legislature has attempted to improve third grade reading outcomes by ending social promotion and instituting a mandatory retention policy for all students not reading at grade-level by the end of the summer. Research has generally found that retention fails to create long-term achievement or adjustment outcomes for students, and retained students are more likely to experience behavioral problems, suffer from lower self-esteem, or drop out of high school altogether.

The report recommends that more must be done to increase reading proficiency for low-income children so that they can attain economic security as adults: use results-driven solutions to transform low-performing schools into high-quality learning environments; make sure that communities are supported to ensure children come to school ready, attend school every day and maintain and expand their learning during the summer months; and develop a system of early care and education that coordinates what children experience from birth through age eight.

“Third grade is such an important milestone because it’s when children transition from learning to read to reading to learn. This transition happens – or doesn’t happen – as the result of a child’s cumulative experiences from birth to age eight,” said Susan Perry-Manning, Executive Director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. “To improve third grade outcomes, we can start by building on what we have done right in our state and invest in policies that recognize birth to age eight as a critical developmental period during which children must have good health, strong families and high quality learning experiences to be most successful in school and life.”

NC Child’s national partner, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has documented in Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and Early Warning Confirmed the need to focus on reading proficiency by the end of third grade as an essential step toward increasing the number of children who succeed academically and do well in life. Research from the reports found that children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school, are less likely to fall into poverty and are more likely to find a job that can adequately support their families.

This latest data snapshot compares reading data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released in November 2013 with data taken from the assessment in 2003 when a majority of states began participating. The NAEP data differ from North Carolina’s End of Grade testing conducted in the spring of 2013, which found that 55% of children could not read proficiently at the end of third grade, a ten percent different from the NAEP scores. This difference can be attributed to different testing content and methods.

“Regardless of which data set you look at, far too many children in North Carolina are not reading proficiently by the beginning of fourth grade. North Carolina needs to do whatever it takes to get all kids ─ especially in populations that are struggling ─ on track with this milestone,” added Bell.

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NC Child is the voice for North Carolina’s children. NC Child advocates for research-based policy solutions that promote the health, education, safety and economic security of our state’s children.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation creates a brighter future for the nation’s children by developing solutions to strengthen families, build paths to economic opportunity and transform struggling communities into safer and healthier places to live, work and grow. For more information, visit

Fourth Grade Reading Proficiency in the United States features the latest data for states, the District of Columbia and the nation, as does the Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center, which is home to comprehensive national, state and local statistics on child well-being. KIDS COUNT®is a registered trademark of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, launched in May 2010, is a collaborative effort of funders, nonprofit partners, states and more than 140 communities across the nation to ensure that many more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career and active citizenship.

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