Of course there’s a kind of cumulative effect of schooling — one year builds on the next, which build on the next and so on. Each step in the chain is important. But researchers have found that one grade in particular stands out as a kind of make-or-break year for students.
It’s so crucial, in fact, that states are starting to pass laws requiring schools to give extra scrutiny at that level in order to ensure the student is ready to move on.
You might think we’re talking about a pre-K year — or even Kindergarten itself, since it now serves as the new first grade what with the banishment of clay, nap time and endless picture books. Or you might think it’s the junior year in high school, when the stakes of a kid’s future are getting higher and higher. It’s neither of those.
Instead, researchers have pinpointed third-grade as the year that sets the course for the rest of a child’s educational life.
What’s so big about third-grade?
In her latest column for TIME magazine, Annie Murphy Paul explains that third grade is when reading shifts from being about stories to being about information. Books are fact-filled. Being able to read becomes the foundation of all future learning.
So when a child finished third-grade without being a strong-enough reader, they’re not only behind at that point, but the fall further and further behind, the Matthew effect. Paul explains:
In operation here is what researchers call the “Matthew effect,” after the Bible verse found in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” In other words, the academically rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as small differences in learning ability grow into large ones. But the Matthew effect has an important upside: well-timed interventions can reverse its direction, turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.
What researchers found was that reading ability in third-grade predicted things like high school graduation rates — low ability in third grade meant four times more likely to drop out in high school.
Education researchers mostly agree that third-grade is something of a fork in the road in education. But many disagree with state lawmakers who want to hold kids back from advancing to fourth-grade if their reading isn’t good enough. Instead, they believe identifying struggling readers at the beginning of third grade and getting them interventions to bring them up to grade-level by the end of the year can be more beneficial.
Does this surprise you?