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With the Florida governor’s Democratic primary set for Aug. 28, Jeff Greene has made education a vital piece of his platform.
In a July 29 interview, Greene said, "There is a big correlation between third-grade reading level and whether you go to college or whether you go to prison. And in Florida right now, only 56 percent of kids are coming out of third grade at third-grade reading level."
It’s spooky to imagine that the performance of an eight-year-old could predict their destiny more than a decade later. We decided to see if Greene’s statistics held up.
A 2010 study by the University of Chicago found that third-grade reading level can be a powerful predictor of future academic success. Researchers tracked thousands of students in the Chicago Public School system from third grade through their high school graduations.
The students took a test in the third grade that measured their reading ability and compared their results with national scores. Students who scored lower than 75 percent of third graders nationwide were defined as "below grade level."
Among students who read below grade level in third grade, only 45 percent graduated high school in five years. Graduation rates were much higher for students who read at grade-level (60 percent) and above grade level (80 percent).
The study controlled for demographic factors, so researchers could examine the correlation between test scores and graduation rates without worrying that race or poverty were influencing the results. Though the variables are correlated -- which means a change in one is connected to a change in the other -- the connection is not causal. Low third grade test scores are not causing kids to dropout of high school.
Likewise, students who read at or below grade level in third grade were significantly less likely to attend college than their peers. Only about 20 percent of below-grade-level students attended college, whereas roughly a third of at grade-level students did. Nearly 60 percent of above-grade-level readers attended college.
There are no studies that directly connect third-grade reading level to incarceration, so the Greene campaign connected it by a two-step process.
As noted in the Chicago study, and backed up by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Georgia governor’s office, students who score below grade level on third grade reading tests are less likely to graduate. Then, there are studies that show high school dropouts are more likely to go to prison. A study from Northeastern University showed that a man with a high school degree had a 1 in 33 chance of incarceration. For a high school dropout, that rate rose to 1 in 10.
So, the Greene campaign argues, students who read below grade-level in third grade tend not to graduate high school, and people who don’t graduate high school tend to have higher incarceration rates.
Katharine Abraham, director of the University of Maryland Center for Economics and Public Policy, said this conclusion "seems plausible but doesn’t necessarily follow from the cited facts." The term "correlation" implies that two variables are related, and that one will change alongside the other. One can not assume that because variables A and B are related, and B and C are related, A is also correlated to C.
For example, there might be a correlation between higher temperatures and sunny days. There might also be a correlation between sunny days and the number of people who get sunburned. However, this does not mean there is a direct correlation between higher temperatures and sunburns.
When asked if it would be accurate to say test scores are correlated to incarceration, Abraham said, "It might well be true, but you can't logically draw that inference."
Greene also said that only 56 percent of kids in Florida are coming out of third grade at the appropriate reading level. He had more concrete data to back up this claim.
He was referring to the results of the most recent administration of the Florida Standards Assessments, which were released in May 2018.
The Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA, are a suite of standardized tests that Florida public schools students in grades 3-10 take yearly. They include mathematics exams as well as reading and writing exams.
Students’ results on the FSA are classified into five groups, the lowest being Level 1 and highest being Level 5. Level 3 or higher means the student is reading at grade level or above.
The spring 2018 results of the English Language Arts (ELA) Grade 3 Reading Exam show that 57 percent of third grade students scored at Level 3 or above.
So Greene actually undersold his point. The statistic he was referring to kept track of students reading at or above grade level, not just those reading at grade level.
Greene said, "There is a big correlation between third grade reading level and whether you go to college or whether you go to prison. And in Florida right now only 56 percent of kids are coming out of third grade at third grade reading level."
Studies have shown that there are correlations between elementary school reading proficiency, high school graduation, and college attendance. There are also studies which show a correlation between high school dropout rates and incarceration.
However, experts say that you can’t assume a direct correlation between reading scores and prison rates based on this data alone. Greene claimed that "there is a big correlation between third grade reading level … and whether you go to prison." This might be true, but we cannot know for sure.
In addition, the results from the 2018 administration of the Florida Standards Assessments show that only 57 percent of third graders pass the reading test at or above grade level. So Greene is correct on that point.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
TV interview with Jeff Greene, July 29, 2018
Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, "Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How Is It Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment?," 2010
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, "Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation," 2012
The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, "How Do Students’ 3rd Grade Reading Levels Relate to their ACT/SAT Performance and Chance of Graduating from High School?," March 22, 2017
Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University, "The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School," October 2009
Florida Department of Education, "Spring 2018 Florida Standards Assessments English Language Arts Grade 3 District Results," May 2018
Florida Department of Education, "2017–18 Florida Standards Assessments English Language Arts and Mathematics Fact Sheet," October 2017
Tampa Bay Times, "Florida Department of Education delivers third-grade reading test results," May 24, 2018
Email exchange with Kevin Coulson, Digital Communications Strategist, University of Florida College of Education, August 1-2, 2018
Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti, "The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports," October 2003
Email with Krista Larson, director of Center on Youth Justice, Vera Institute of Justice, August 3-4, 2018
Email with Katharine Abraham, director of the University of Maryland Center for Economics and Public Policy, August 3-6, 2018
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