Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
The screening test would be given to all kindergarteners and first graders in California.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s announced a new effort last week to have all third-grade students reading at grade level by 2026. Research tells us top-performing organizations with successful goals meet three criteria: the goals are challenging, achievable and meaningful. Before California dives into designing strategies, policymakers should take steps to ensure the reading goal is achievable and more meaningful.

The 100% goal is challenging, and it might seem daunting at first to many teachers and principals. An extra 200,000 students in each class will eventually need to become proficient readers. California students are going to need to get off to a better start.

Recent data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA) allows us to see the average test scores in third grade and then the learning rates as students move through elementary and middle school. In the chart below — based on a decade of data before the pandemic — each school district is represented by a circle. Higher poverty districts are in purple and lower poverty districts are in blue.

Two-thirds of districts in California are in the bottom right and are labeled “Opportunity” districts. Their students don’t get off to as good a start as they should, finishing third grade reading below grade level. The good news is that from fourth to eighth grade, their reading achievement grows by more than a year for each year in school. They have above-average growth compared with students in the rest of the United States.

While more than half of students get off to weak a start, many California school districts are providing opportunities to learn. Fully funded, transitional kindergarten should help ensure even more students receive the opportunity to get their schooling off to a good start.

Is the reading goal achievable? The good news is California has a steady history of recent reading improvement to build upon. In 2003, California ranked 49th in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Half of fourth grade students read at the below basic level. By 2019, fourth grade reading scores had risen by a full grade level (from 206 to 216), and 62.5% of students were reading at basic and above. The achievement gap between white and Latino students has also narrowed.

When we follow the same groups of students as they move from grade to grade, steady progress is also evident on the state’s Smarter Balanced exams.  About 220,000 more elementary and middle school students became proficient readers and writers from 2015-2019 than they initially were in third grade. These trends are present across all the Smarter Balanced states, but California and Oregon, have been trailblazers in improving achievement.

Visalia Unified School District is an example of a district whose students catch up over time. As the chart below shows, by the time students finish eighth grade, they are meeting reading and writing expectations. If researchers can start to understand why students aren’t getting off to a good start, but then also distill lessons from how districts like Visalia are helping struggling readers improve, Superintendent Thurmond’s challenging goal might be achievable.

The benefits of reading by grade three are clear: a study of 4,000 students by the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds those who read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times more likely to graduate high school on time and go to college. It’s important to get students on track to educational and economic success. It’s equally important to keep them on track as they move through school.

How many college-educated citizens does California need? Economists at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Work project that 65% of the jobs in California today require at least some college.  By 2030, Moody’s Analytics projects 50% of California’s future workforce will need an Associate Degree and 70% will need at least some college.

The state has taken great care to develop standards and exams in line with the expectations of colleges and employers. Now is the moment for policymakers to line it all up, to ensure their education goals match the state’s economic development needs.

Ambitious goal-setting shouldn’t lose sight of the ultimate destination for students. State policymakers should line up the goals — 100% reading by third grade and at least 70% proficiency by the end of middle and high school because that’s how many need to be on track to be successful in college. Doing this makes a challenging and possibly achievable goal all the more meaningful to students, parents, and educators across the state.


David Wakelyn is a consultant at Union Square Learning, a nonprofit that works with school districts and charter schools to improve instruction. He previously was on the team at the National Governors Association that developed Common Core State Standards. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Gary H Sanchez 9 months ago9 months ago

    I think these kinds of statements discount the severe and profound difficulties students face. All kids would include those that are homeless, in foster care, refugees from foreign nations, students just learning English, and those with learning difficulties/handicaps. Yes, we can improve, but saying 100% (at least to me) insults the struggle students, parents, and teachers face.