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Experts and previous reporting show that there is no basis for this claim, which has been recycled by politicians and others for years.
Private prisons use inmate projections from state governments, not third grade reading scores, to project how much space they’ll need. For example, the Florida Department of Corrections measured their estimates for the future based on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Typically, standardized test scores are used to measure how well students have grasped what they’ve been taught over the school year. But an old claim suggests that something sinister is happening with those scores behind the scenes.
"Did you know that third grade reading scores in the USA help correctional institutions predict how many beds they’ll need in the future," read the text on an Instagram post. "So rather than helping these babies, they just begin planning for incarceration. Welcome to America."
The Instagram post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson told PolitiFact, "This does not appear to be true, at least at the federal level. We’re not aware of any instance in which the U.S. Department of Education has ever partnered with correctional institutions to determine, based on test scores, how much capacity in prisons will be needed in the future."
We reported in 2013 that private prisons use inmate projections from state governments, not third-grade reading scores; the same is true now. Alex Wilkes, a spokeswoman from Day 1 Alliance, a trade association representing the prison corporations CoreCivic, The GEO Group, MTC and LaSalle Corrections, told PolitiFact that the claim was "total nonsense."
"This is just another ridiculous example of the prominent role that misinformation plays in this debate and how some repeat these lies for years on end," Wilkes said. "Contractors are subjected to multiple layers of oversight, from health agencies to independent auditors, including on-site government monitors who work inside our members’ facilities to hold them accountable to the contract."
As an example of the type of statistics used to determine future space in prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections pointed PolitiFact to reports from the Office of Economic and Demographic Research. A report from the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, which met on Jan. 13, 2022, shows Florida Corrections officials lowered their estimates for the number of future inmates based on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact in 2021. The Florida Corrections Department saw a reduced number of felony arrests, a decreased intake of inmates because of staffing shortages and an increased backlog in cases — and because of this, the department lowered its projections for inmate admissions and populations for 2022.
"While there is upward pressure on admissions as the courts continue to process their backlog of pending felony cases and DOC works to clear their recent backlog, the reduced number of felony arrests are exerting enough downward pressure that admissions numbers are expected to lower admissions for the foreseeable future," the report read.
PolitiFact also contacted Peter Leone, who directed the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, which published a report during its operation from 1999 to 2006 that said in part, "At least one state uses reading achievement levels of students in the third grade as a basis for projecting the number of future prison beds needed."
But Leone set the record straight for us in 2013: That sentence in the report had been included by a colleague before he got the facts, Leone said.
Today, Leone, a professor emeritus of special education at the University of Maryland who specializes in behavioral disorders and school discipline, said the claim is still wrong, and there’s no study that can support it.
"There’s just no truth to it. And no one I’ve ever talked to has been able to produce a study, a paper, (or) someone (who) will go on the record and say, ‘Yeah, actually that’s what we used to do. That’s what we did.’ It’s just nothing there."
So why doesn’t the claim die? Leone said it’s likely because it’s catchy. Reports have shown that people including Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Terry McAuliffe and others have often repeated the statement.
Prison corporations are not looking at third-grade test scores to plan for the future, and low reading scores alone do not mean that children are likely to go to prison when they’re older. But, Leone said, children who face difficulties such as low literacy, misbehavior or absences in school, or trouble in their homes or communities could be more likely to get in trouble with the justice system.
"The nexus is not a clear cause-and-effect relationship," Leone said. "Rather, it’s a cluster of vulnerabilities that include poverty, race, low literacy levels, it’s a whole bunch of things. And that’s what makes those kids more vulnerable to the justice system."
An Instagram post touted the claim that correctional institutions research third-grade reading scores to help them determine how many beds will be needed in the future.
The claim is years-old and false. Experts and reports have shown that there is no evidence to support it. Private prisons use inmate projections from state governments, not third-grade reading scores to plan for the future.
We rate this claim Pants on Fire!
Instagram post, July 13, 2022
PolitiFact, Preckwinkle repeats urban myth about third-grade test scores, prison beds, March 24, 2019
PolitiFact, Kathleen Ford says private prisons use third-grade data to plan for prison beds, July 16, 2013
Email interview with spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education, July 18, 2022
Email interview with Alex Wilkes, spokeswoman from Day 1 Alliance, July 18, 2022
Phone interview with Peter Leone, professor emeritus of special education at the University of Maryland, July 15, 2022
The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice report, accessed July 18, 2022
Email interview with the Florida Department of Corrections, July 18, 2022
The Washington Post, Bogus Claim in Va. About Jails, Schools Shows How Easily Fact, Fancy Can Blur, June 4, 2009
FactCheck.org, Virginia Myths and More, June 4, 2009
The Florida Channel, 1/13/22 Criminal Justice Estimating Conference, accessed July 20, 2022
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