Hawaii’s low-income students struggle in reading


For decades, research has shown the importance of reading proficiently by the end of third grade. It’s more than a critical milestone; it’s a crucial marker in a child’s educational development, one that shows that they’ve transitioned from learning to read to using reading to learn. Those who don’t read well and fall behind by this grade rarely catch up. They’re more likely to drop out of high school and not be as economically successful in adulthood.

Even with progress, only 34 percent of fourth-graders nationwide are proficient in reading and the remaining 66 percent are not. When it comes to income, “the gap in proficiency rates between low-income and higher-income children widened by nearly 20 percent over the past decade and got worse in nearly every state,” according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report released today.

Data, taken from the National Assessment of Education Progress, showed 80 percent of lower-income fourth-graders in the U.S. are below reading proficiency, compared with 49 percent of higher-income. Lower income means those students were eligible for the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program commonly referred to as the free and reduced lunch program. Such meals are given to students with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty level.

“Unfortunately, by the time they are 8 years old, many children — especially those living in low-income families — have not met the developmental milestones that are essential for future success in school and in life. This gap often starts early as a result of health problems at birth, contributing to lags in language and social-emotional skill development in early childhood,” the report stated.

“Low-income children are also more likely to miss out on high-quality early learning experiences, which can help mitigate these delays. Once they reach the early grades, children in economically fragile families often attend schools that lack high-quality teaching and learning environments. They also face family-related stressors, such as parental job loss and housing insecurity, which contribute to chronic absence from school.”

The share of students not reading-proficient remains slightly higher in Hawaii than nationally. Still, the state has seen an overall improvement in proficiency levels with 79 percent of fourth-graders reading below proficiency in 2003 compared to 70 percent last year.

Despite these improvements, disparities between income groups persists. Greater improvements were seen among higher-income Hawaii students over the past decade than among lower-income students. The total of higher-income students not reading-proficient decreased from 71 percent to 57 percent while lower-income students not reading proficient dropped from 87 percent to 83 percent.

“What is most concerning is that the gap in reading proficiency based on family income continues to widen. Hawaii is also one of three states with the largest increases in that gap,” said Ivette Rodriguez Stern, Hawaii Kids Count Project director at the University of Hawaii Center of Family. “Increasing the reading proficiency of children from lower-income families in the early years is especially important to making sure they are ready to succeed in school and can later attain economic security.”

Fortunately in Hawaii, Stern said, there’s a sincere want to make sure all children achieve their full potential and help is already on the way for those who aren’t among the most proficient readers. Recently, there have been several initiatives by state officials and lawmakers, focusing on early education and intervention — all of which will hopefully help fill in the gap. Though, it might be five to 10 years before the improvement is seen, she added.

The strategies vary, from improving access to prekindergarten to working with families with young children very early on and partnering with community groups offering literacy or after-school programs

Last year, the Legislature funded a school readiness program by expanding the state Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program, which provides families with subsidies to attend private preschools. Earlier this month, Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s Executive Office on Early Learning and the state Department of Education unveiled plans for a prekindergarten program that will operate through 32 classrooms on 30 public elementary schools, of which half will be located on neighbor islands.

Stern said the Kids Count reports are important because they bring attention to various issues affecting children, as well as serve as a valuable resource for those who care to take action, including creating policies or making investments.

“The Kids Count report significantly underscores the importance of providing every child quality early learning opportunities — like preschool,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood issues. “The state is moving in the right direction with its Preschool Open Doors program and the Department of Education’s proposed 32 preschool classes, however, we need to build additional capacity in order to meet the needs of our keiki. A statewide community-based early learning system where all providers have the option to participate is what’s needed to ensure that our children have access to high-quality programs that prepare them for kindergarten and beyond.”

To view the report, “Early Reading Proficiency in the United States,” visit datacenter.kidscount.org.