NC Third Grade Reading Scores Flatline Again – Time for a Comprehensive Approach

Test scores are in for the 2018-19 school year, and third grade reading proficiency has not changed much from previous years. Disaggregated proficiency data reveal that low income, racial bias and inequity, disability, homelessness and child abuse/neglect continue to create barriers to opportunity for North Carolina’s children. Improving the state’s average third-grade reading proficiency will require comprehensive strategies explicitly focused on reducing these barriers.

  All Students
2015-16 57.7
2016-17 57.8
2017-18 55.9
2018-19 56.8

The Takeaway:  More of the Same

The percent of all third graders considered “grade-level proficient” (scoring a 3, 4 or 5 on the end of grade reading test) increased by less than one percentage point this year, from 55.9% in 2017-18 to 56.8% in 2018-19, down from close to 58 percent proficient in the two previous years.

By race, the most growth was shown by American Indian students (2.2 percent), Asian students (2 percent) and Black students (1.7 percent). One percent more Hispanic students and half a percent more students of two or more races were proficient, compared to the year before. Only 0.1 percent more white students made the grade.



These slight shifts are insignificant, however, when held up against the backdrop of persistent racial disparities in NC’s third grade reading scores (see chart). Compared to the average of all students, Asian third graders scored 19 points higher, white students scored 13 points higher, and students of two or more races scored three points higher. Black students scored 16 points below the state average, Hispanic students scored 14 below, and American Indian students scored 12 points below. These disparities have changed little over the years.


All Students

American Indian




Two or More Races



































Students living in poverty, those still learning English, and those with disabilities are much less likely than students not facing these barriers to score in the proficient range (see chart). For example, 71 percent of middle class and wealthy students scored proficient, compared with only 42 percent of children whose families are living with low income. Sixty-two percent of students without disabilities scored proficient, compared to only 23 percent of students with disabilities.

For the first time this year, the NC Department of Public Instruction provided disaggregated proficiency percentages for children in foster care (42 percent proficient), children facing homelessness (33 percent proficient) and children in migrant families (28 percent proficient), who, on average, scored lower than children not facing those barriers to opportunity. Children in military families (72 percent proficient) outperformed the average by 15 points.


A Whole-Child, Birth-through-Eight Approach to Improving Early Literacy

Third-grade reading proficiency is impacted by a host of factors that begin before a child is born and that reach outside the domain of education. The Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Measures of Success Framework outlines the research that connects 50-60 data points like adult pre-pregnancy health, infant birthweight, parenting education, safe and supportive relationships, high quality teaching, and regular school attendance to third grade reading outcomes.

The research is clear that, because the pathways to grade-level reading proficiency are complex, cross-sector and begin before birth, there is no silver bullet for improving early literacy. What works is a broad portfolio of investments in children’s health, education and family and community supports, from birth through age eight. And every year, disaggregated proficiency data like that shared above highlights the importance of focusing intentionally on strategies that reduce barriers to opportunity around race, income, ability, and language.

The Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework, co-created over a year by hundreds of stakeholders, is North Carolina’s consensus proposal for how to start improving third-grade reading outcomes in our state. Taking a cross-sector, birth through age eight approach, the Action Framework lifts up strategies intentionally designed to reduce those barriers to opportunity that are preventing North Carolina’s children from learning to read – so that every child has the opportunity for success in school and life.

Read more about the three-year Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative here. Click here if your organization would like to join many others in endorsing the Frameworks.