Please stop saying "57% of 3rd graders can't read." That lie is getting old.

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

If you've watched any of the Texas House or Senate committee hearings over the past month, no doubt you've heard this line a few times:

57% of 3rd graders can't read.

You can hear it here:


Or here:


Or another form of it here:


57% of 3rd graders can't read...


The majority of 3rd graders can't read...


100% should be able to read...


Let's discuss this for a moment.


First, let's talk about where that 57% even came from.


During his testimony at the January 30 Committee on Public Education hearing, Commissioner Mike Morath reviewed a presentation in which he referenced a "Student Achievement and Attainment Summary." (You can read the full presentation here.)


That summary included this chart:


If you'll notice the section on 3rd grade reading:


In 2018, 43% of 3rd grade students scored at the Meets Grade Level standard or above on the spring administration of the 3rd Grade Reading STAAR Assessment. Obviously, that would mean that 57% didn't score at the Meets Grade Level standard.


There's your source for the 57%.


But what should have been asked (which obviously wasn't) is that if a student didn't score at the Meets Grade Level on the 3rd Grade Reading STAAR Assessment, does that mean that child cannot read?


Hey, big shocker.


That's not what it means.


At all.


Let me explain why in three simple points.


1) The STAAR assesses a variety of grade level standards within the broad subject of reading, not just whether a student can simply read or not read.


It would be lovely if an educator's life was as simple as getting assessment results back and it was just a giant two-column sheet with two headings:


KIDS THAT CAN READ / KIDS THAT CAN'T


But, alas, our lives just aren't that simple.


No, instead we're presented with things like long lists of SEs, reporting categories, and item analysis sheets.


We look at things like this:

4(B) use context to determine the relevant meaning of unfamiliar words or distinguish among multiple meaning words and homographs

8(A) sequence and summarize the plot's main events and explain their influence on future events


And then we have discussions, like:

"Okay, both Johnny and Jesse scored a 56, but Johnny rocked 4B and struggled with 8A, while Jesse did the opposite."


Same results. Different paths.


Different gaps.


It's called nuance. Learning doesn't happen on a single continuum. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Adults. Students. Everyone.


And the STAAR test, love it or hate it, assesses this nuance. It's not just a series of questions that determine whether or not a child is capable of reading.


It's a series of questions that tells us whether a child can read and comprehend fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Or only one of those three. Or none. And within those broader genres, it tells us whether or not a student understands characterization, plot, etc.


Assessment---and I mean true, I-need-to-inform-my-instruction-so-that-I-can-help-this-student assessment---is not black and white.


It's a big grey world where a student may be capable of reading one type of text and not another. And that fact may or may not be reflected in a simple "Meets Grade Level" label.


2) While only 43% of 3rd graders scored at Meets, 76% scored at Approaches. And according to the state, students at the Approaches level have "demonstrated the ability to apply the assessed knowledge" in certain contexts.


"Meets Grade Level" is just one of four performance categories that operate in the following hierarchy:

Did Not Meet Grade Level

Approaches Grade Level

Meets Grade Level

Masters Grade Level


And while those labels would seem simple enough, similar to the STAAR test, they are much more nuanced than you would think.


For example, the state's definition of "Approaches Grade Level" reads as follows:

Performance in this category indicates that students are likely to succeed in the next grade or course with targeted academic intervention. Students in this category generally demonstrate the ability to apply the assessed knowledge and skills in familiar contexts.

Again, this isn't my language. This is from TEA. Feel free to read more here.


If you pull up TEA's Statewide Summary Report for the 3rd Grade Reading STAAR (for your reference), you'll notice that 76% of students scored at Approaches Grade Level.



So, according to the state's definitions, 76% of 3rd graders are "likely to succeed in the next grade level" with targeted intervention, and they have demonstrated "the ability to apply the assessed knowledge and skills in familiar contexts."


Gee...I mean, I've got quite an imagination, but that sure doesn't sound like these students CAN'T read.


It sounds like the opposite, actually.


3) The item analysis report for the 2018 3rd Grade Reading STAAR provides us with a strong indication that the majority of 3rd grade students can actually read, but they struggle with specific grade level concepts.


If you pull up the item analysis report for last year's 3rd grade STAAR, you'll find some interesting bits of data:



For the non-educators reading this, what you're looking at is the breakdown of every question on last year's test with the percentages of students that answered each of the four answer choices.


Take a look at questions 1, 5, 16, and 28.


On those questions, over 80% of students answered those questions correctly. And if you take into account the next highest answer choice, you're looking at basically 90% of students answered either the correct answer or the next best answer.


Of course you could shrug that off as lucky guessing, but if that's your choice, also take a look at 2, 3, 6, 10, 12, 14, 20, 21, 26, 30, 31, and 34.


70% or more of all students---remember this is ALL 3rd GRADE STUDENTS---answered these questions correctly.


If you combine those two categories---all questions answered at 70% and higher---you have 16 questions of a 34-question test.


About half of the questions were answered correctly by the majority of students.


That's not guessing.


That's a demonstration of knowledge and skills.



Now, let me be clear.


We have gaps. That's for sure.


But to claim that "57% of 3rd graders can't read" is disrespectful to our schools, our teachers, and most importantly, our kids.


It's just a lie.


Should we be happy with 76% of students only at Approaches Grade Level? Should we jump with joy at only 70% of our 3rd graders answering about half of an assessment's questions correctly?


Of course not.


We should always aim higher. We should always try to help students learn and apply more knowledge and utilize more complex skills.


But let's not look at a 43% Meets Grade Level and start freaking out because we think our kids can't read.


They can.


The data says that they can.


Stop claiming that they can't.


Oh, and I didn't even get into whether what we're saying is 3rd grade content is actually even 3rd grade content. Because...well, it's not.


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