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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


July 2018


What does the research say about the relationship between reading proficiency by the end of third grade and academic achievement, college retention, college and career readiness, incarceration, and high school dropout?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for journal articles and research reports on the relationship between third grade reading proficiency and future academic and other outcomes. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. KIDS COUNT special report. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Over the past decade, Americans have become increasingly concerned about the high numbers—and costs—of high school dropouts. The time is now to build a similar consensus around this less-recognized but equally urgent fact: The pool from which employers, colleges, and the military draw is too small, and still shrinking, because millions of American children get to fourth grade without learning to read proficiently. And that puts them on the dropout track. This special report highlights the causes and consequences of low reading proficiency and proposes some essential steps toward closing the gap between those who can and cannot read proficiently, raising the bar for what people expect all American children to know and be able to do, and improving the overall achievement of children from low-income families.”

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Educators and researchers have long recognized the importance of mastering reading by the end of third grade. Students who fail to reach this critical milestone often falter in the later grades and drop out before earning a high school diploma. This study relies on a unique national database of 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989. The children’s parents were surveyed every two years to determine the family’s economic status and other factors, while the children’s reading progress was tracked using the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) Reading Recognition subtest. The database reports whether students have finished high school by age 19, but does not indicate whether they actually dropped out. For purposes of this study, the researchers divided the children into three reading groups which correspond roughly to the skill levels used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): proficient, basic and below basic. The children were also separated into three income categories: those who have never been poor, those who spent some time in poverty and those who have lived more than half the years surveyed in poverty. The findings include: (1) One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers; (2) The rates are highest for the low, below-basic readers: 23 percent of these children drop out or fail to finish high school on time, compared to 9 percent of children with basic reading skills and 4 percent of proficient readers; (3) Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school, compared to 6 percent of those who have never been poor. This rises to 32 percent for students spending more than half of their childhood in poverty; (4) For children who were poor for at least a year and were not reading proficiently in third grade, the proportion that don’t finish school rose to 26 percent. That’s more than six times the rate for all proficient readers; (5) The rate was highest for poor Black and Hispanic students, at 31 and 33 percent respectively--or about eight times the rate for all proficient readers; (6) Even among poor children who were proficient readers in third grade, 11 percent still didn’t finish high school. That compares to 9 percent of subpar third grade readers who have never been poor; (7) Among children who never lived in poverty, all but 2 percent of the best third-grade readers graduated from high school on time; and (8) Graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students who were not proficient readers in third grade lagged far behind those for White students with the same reading skills.”

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2013). Early warning confirmed: A research update on third-grade reading. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report underscores the urgency of ensuring that children develop proficient reading skills by the end of third grade, especially those living in poverty or in impoverished communities. A follow up to 2010’s ‘Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,’ this report supports the link between reading deficiencies and broader social consequences, including how living in poor households and high-poverty neighborhoods contribute to racial disparities in literacy skills in America and how low achievement in reading impacts an individual’s future earning potential.”

Dogan, E., Ogut, B., & Kim, Y. Y. (2015). Early childhood reading skills and proficiency in NAEP eighth-grade reading assessment. Applied Measurement in Education, 28(3), 187–201. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The relationship between reading skills in earlier grades and achieving ‘Proficiency’ on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 8 reading assessment was examined by establishing a statistical link between NAEP and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) grade 8 reading assessments using data from a common sample that took both assessments. The link allowed a comparison between NAEP grade 8 achievement levels in reading and the finer grain and developmentally descriptive ECLS reading proficiency levels. Reading skills students need to master in earlier grades to later reach NAEP’s ‘Proficient’ level at grade 8 were identified. Results showed that, in terms of ECLS reading proficiency levels, to have about a 50% chance of reaching ‘Proficient’ in NAEP’s grade 8 reading assessment students need to be at level 5 (reading words in context) or higher by spring term of first grade, at level 7 (extrapolation) or higher by spring term of third grade or at level 8 (evaluation) or higher by spring term of fifth grade.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Lesnick, J., Goerge, R. M., Smithgall, C., & Gwynne, J. (2010). Reading on grade level in third grade: How is it related to high school performance and college enrollment? A longitudinal analysis of third-grade students in Chicago in 1996-97 and their educational outcomes. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Retrieved from Full text available at

From the ERIC abstract: “Learning to read is one of the most important skills in modern society. Not only does reading serve as the major foundational skill for school-based learning, but reading ability is strongly related to opportunities for academic and vocational success. For children, a critical transition takes place during elementary school: until the end of third grade, most students are ‘learning to read’. Beginning in fourth grade, however, students begin ‘reading to learn’. Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade begin having difficulty comprehending the written material that is a central part of the educational process in the grades that follow. Meeting increased educational demands becomes more difficult for students who struggle to read. The study described here uses longitudinal administrative data to examine the relationship between third-grade reading level and four educational outcomes: eighth-grade reading performance, ninth-grade course performance, high school graduation, and college attendance. Using third-grade national percentile rankings on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) to place a focus cohort of 26,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students into ‘below (0-24th national percentile), ‘at’ (25th-74th national percentile) and ‘above’ grade level (75th-100th national percentile) groupings, the authors find correlational evidence that students who were at and above grade level in third grade graduate and attend college at higher rates than their peers who were below grade level in third grade. The results of this study do not examine whether low reading performance causes low future educational performance, or whether improving a child’s reading trajectory has an effect on future educational outcomes. Future research to investigate this question is necessary. Statistical Models and Results are appended.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Lonigan, C. J., & Shanahan, T. (2009). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel (Executive Summary). Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals that 37 percent of U.S. fourth graders fail to achieve basic levels of reading achievement. In 1997, the U.S. Congress asked that a review of research be conducted to determine what could be done to improve reading and writing achievement. The resulting ‘Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read’ (NICHD, 2000) has been influential in helping to guide reading-education policy and practice in the United States. However, that report did not examine the implications of instructional practices used with children from birth through age 5. To address this gap in the knowledge base, the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) was convened. The panel was asked to apply a similar methodological review process to that used by the National Reading Panel (NRP) to issues of instructional practices for young children so that parents and teachers could better support their emerging literacy skills. The NELP report represents a systematic and extensive synthesis of the published research literature concerning children's early literacy skills. It provides educators and policymakers with important information about the early skills that are implicated in later literacy learning, as well as information about the type of instruction that can enhance these skills. The results also identify areas in which additional research is needed. The meta-analyses conducted by the panel showed that a wide range of interventions had a positive impact on children’s early literacy learning.”

Miles, S. B., & Stipek, D. (2006). Contemporaneous and longitudinal associations between social behavior and literacy achievement in a sample of low-income elementary school children. Child Development, 77(1), 103–117. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study investigates associations between social skills (aggression and prosocial behavior) and literacy achievement in a sample of low-income children (between 4 and 6 years old when the study began) during elementary school. Results revealed consistent associations between social skills and literacy achievement in the first, third, and fifth grades, but the patterns of the associations were different for aggression and prosocial behavior. While the strength of the association between aggression and literacy achievement increased over the elementary grades, the association between prosocial behavior and literacy achievement decreased. In addition, path analyses revealed that poor literacy achievement in the first and third grades predicted relatively high aggressive behavior in the third and fifth grades, respectively.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Zakariya, S. B. (2015). Learning to read, reading to learn: Why third grade is a pivotal year for mastering literacy. Alexandria, VA: Center for Public Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The research is clear: if children cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade, they face daunting hurdles to success in school and beyond. Third grade marks a pivot point in reading. In fourth grade, students begin encountering a wider variety of texts. By then, able readers have learned to extract and analyze new information and expand their vocabularies by reading (O’Brien, 2008). But struggling readers rarely catch up with their peers academically and are four times more likely to drop out of high school, lowering their earning power as adults and possibly costing society in welfare and other supports (Hernandez, 2011). Indeed, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2010 that ‘every student who does not complete high school costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.’ (Feister, 2010).”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • descriptors:“graduation rate” “grade 3” “reading skills” “correlation”

  • third grade literacy future outcomes

  • third grade literacy importance

  • third grade literacy predict outcomes

  • third grade literacy as predictor of future outcomes

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.