By Lisa Hagen, State House correspondent
BOSTON — Although statewide MCAS scores rose across the board this year, third-grade reading proficiency fell short for the 12th straight year, according to figures released Friday by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Forty-four percent of third-graders around the state received “not proficient” grades, a 5 percent decrease from last year. Sixty-three percent of 1,088 third-graders in Lowell tested below proficiency.
“It is discouraging that we have virtually no progress on scores for over a decade as a state,” Carolyn Lyons, president of Strategies for Children, said. “The only way we can turn this around for children is to make sure we’re investing in more resources.”
Third-grade reading results have remained consistently low since 2001. According to Lyons’ group, a nonprofit organization geared toward third- grade reading proficiency, students who struggle with reading in that grade are four times less likely to finish high school by age 19.
Lyons said research has indicated third grade as a “critical predictor for future success in school.” After releasing a report about reading proficiency in 2010, her group launched a 10-year campaign with a goal of having every child in the state achieve reading proficiency by third grade.
“This isn’t just an issue for public schools to address,” she said. “We need to respond to research that learning starts at birth before the bell begins at kindergarten.”
With cuts in early education on both federal and state levels, Lyons said it is “our collective responsibility” that children continue learning outside the classroom whether they are involved in an after-school or summer program.
State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester noted that although the state has some of the highest scores nationally, there remains room for improvement.
He said one way of accomplishing this is by encouraging more writing in early education in addition to reading.
“I do think that we can do better than we’ve been doing and some of this is about more deliberately having children write as well as read, improve writing approaches, and an investment in preschool-level opportunities,” he said.
The state is looking to replace MCAS, previewing a standardized K-12 assessment test of students’ readiness for college and careers called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). After a two-year pilot program, the state will decide whether to replace it.
Chester noted that the new test would have a writing component for every grade level and shift to analyzing more nonfiction reading.
“I do think that having to develop writing and develop vocabulary will boost literacy achievement in both fiction and nonfiction,” Chester said. “That will make the reading and writing connected to one another much more powerful.”
Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the nonprofit think tank, Pioneer Institute, cautioned that PARCC focuses less on classic literature, drama and poetry, which he said strengthens a higher quality of vocabulary for students.
“We’ve known for several years that the reading scores are stagnating or declining, especially with low-income students, and (PARCC) is an unnecessary transition that is not going to help things out and create greater confusion and less continuity,” Gass said.
To make up for the loss in fiction reading, Gass encourages parents to read the classics to their children at home.
Despite the lack of improvement in third-grade reading scores, Chester noted that Murkland Elementary School in Lowell was one of 14 schools around the state once labeled “underperforming” that has increased achievement and progress after a three-year improvement program.
“I’m encouraged by what we’ve seen at Murkland and the other schools over the past three years,” Chester said. “It is a very hopeful sign for what is possible in early grades for both reading and math.”