Jennifer Sandfort devotes nearly two hours each morning to English instruction in her third-grade class at Empire Oaks Elementary School, ranging from interactive lessons to free reading time.
She moves swiftly through lessons and assignments in an orderly manner at the Folsom school, but sometimes feels like she can’t get to everything she wants each day.
“We have so much to cover and so much to teach the kids,” she said.
While students focus on reading and writing the minute they set foot in kindergarten, the stakes are particularly high in third grade. Three decades of research have shown that students who can’t read at grade level by that point are more likely to drop out of high school than their reading-proficient peers. In impoverished communities, students have an even slimmer chance of catching up.
Local teachers are redoubling their efforts after a new statewide test administered last year showed that 60 percent of third-graders in the Sacramento region performed below the state standard in English. The region includes Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties.
The state’s new Smarter Balanced Assessment System incorporates new Common Core standards that emphasize analytical thinking, problem solving and communications skills. Students often must combine several skills to correctly answer questions, and memorization is less valuable. Students, regardless of income level, fared worse than under the previous testing system, but low-income schools suffered the steepest performance declines.
“The new level of expectation far exceeds what we were expecting 15 years ago,” said Anne Zeman, executive director of elementary education for Twin Rivers Unified School District, which serves the North Sacramento area. “By the end of kindergarten 15 years ago we were thrilled if a child could read ‘The cat sat on a mat.’ Now it is much more sophisticated.”
Third grade is a predictor of future academic success because it is typically when students begin reading more complex texts, said Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan and former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
“They are now reading books on science, social studies and math,” she said. “All that content-related reading is dependent on their ability to read fluently.”
A Bee review of state data shows the majority of Sacramento area schools that performed well on Smarter Balanced third-grade reading tests are located in wealthier areas – mostly in Placer and El Dorado counties – while the lowest performing schools were in poorest neighborhoods in Sacramento.
Seventy-six percent of the region’s poorest kids could not meet standards on the English test, compared to 42 percent of wealthier kids.
At Empire Oaks Elementary School in Folsom, only 2 percent of students are eligible for subsidized meals based on family income. More than three-quarters of the school’s third-graders read at or above grade level.
Despite advantages at home and having a teacher with a doctorate in education, a few students in Sandfort’s class still struggle with reading. A bin of books reflects the range of abilities in the room, with titles suited for readers at first- to seventh-grade levels.
Sandfort tries to address the needs of students at different levels by incorporating individual and small-group instruction into class time while other students read with a partner or listen to stories on a laptop. Sandfort also tries to read to her students every day, but sometimes runs out of time.
As research indicated that third-grade reading ability was an important determinant in future academic success, states began requiring more tests in early grades, as well as more intervention when young students struggle. Some states require that schools hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan consulting organization.
California requires third-graders to take reading tests but allows districts to determine whether to send students to summer school or other programs to catch up.
Neuman said the answer to improving student reading is easy. “We’ve got to get kids into good preschool programs to accelerate their vocabulary. If a child has poor vocabulary coming into school, they are likely to lag throughout their schooling. It’s a tragic statement, but it’s true.”
The consequences can be devastating, with many struggling students eventually dropping out of school. “Those people in prisons you will see have no better than a fourth-grade reading level,” she said.
Sacramento-area school districts have a variety of programs to improve reading in the lower grades. Some focus on improving instruction by offering teacher training, while others are expanding summer and after-school programs.
The region’s largest school district – Elk Grove Unified – gives every transitional kindergarten through third-grade teacher 18 hours of training in early literacy, said Donna Cherry, associate superintendent for elementary education for Elk Grove Unified. Administrators also take ongoing training, she said.
The district also has literacy coaches at its schools, with more at the 14 schools with the highest need. Another team of coaches – one for every three schools – serves English learners.
Sacramento City Unified is using a program called “Balanced Literacy” in prekindergarten through sixth grades. The program integrates reading and writing instruction through all curriculum throughout the school day, said Iris Taylor, interim chief academic officer.
Although the program is in its fourth year, the district has rolled it out slowly and some schools have yet to start it.
Twin Rivers Unified started an Early Literacy Initiative in 2013 to ensure students are reading at grade level by third grade. The initiative includes assessments, interventions and professional development to ensure high-quality instruction, according to district materials.
Last year was an opportunity to measure students’ baseline abilities as they took the Smarter Balanced tests for the first time, Zeman said. This year, each school is expected to increase reading ability by 10 percent, she said. Kindergarten is expected to have a 20 percent increase in its reading level. The goal is to have kindergarten through third-graders all reading at grade level by 2018.
Educators at local districts say parents can help improve their children’s literacy by reading to them. “When students see their parents reading, it helps students develop a love for reading,” Cherry said. “If we can instill a love of reading, it will go a long way.”
LOCAL DATA SUPPLIED BY PHILLIP