Good News: Madison Third-Grade Reading Scores Are Finally Trending Upward

The Madison school district released the 2015-16 Annual Report on the MMSD Strategic Framework a couple of weeks ago. There is good stuff in here on the progress our school district and our students are making and it rewards a thorough read.


It is worth highlighting the encouraging data in the report on third-grade reading.   The percentage of students who are proficient readers by third grade is generally recognized as perhaps the single most important statistic for a school district. Its significance has spawned the urban myth that planners in departments of corrections study third-grade reading scores to determine how many prison cells they will need to build in coming years.

Why focus on third grade? As the saying goes, up to third grade students learn to read and after third grade they read to learn. A 2014 United Way of Dane County report quoted a finding of the National Research Council: “Academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.” Sociology professor Donald Hernandez has found that, in the words of Education Week, “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.”

Like just about all measures of academic performance for Madison students, third grade reading scores over the years have shown a gaping and seemingly intractable achievement gap between African-American students and white students. Improving academic achievement for all students, and particularly accelerating learning for African-American students in ways that can narrow gaps, have been overriding priorities for superintendent Jen Cheatham since she arrived in Madison in April, 2013.

So, how is it going? In Madison, we measure learning primarily through MAP tests that are administered in the fall and spring to our students between grades 3 and 8. The springtime scores let us know how many of our students are proficient, as MAP defines it, and also what percentage of our students made the expected growth in their skills between the fall and spring administration of the tests.

Here is a chart that shows both the percentage of all third-grade students who measured proficient in reading by MAP standards over the past four years, as well as the percentage of African-American third grade students:

Copy of Wizard dataJust as we’d like, the chart shows progress for all students and accelerated learning for our African-American students. Over the last two years, the reading proficiency of all our third grade students increased by three percentage points, and the percentage for African-American third graders jumped ten points, though starting from an admittedly dismal level.   The achievement gap on this measure was narrowed from 30 percentage points to 23 percentage points.

Here’s another chart that shows the percentage of all third-graders and of African-American third graders who achieved their growth benchmarks between the fall and spring MAP tests.

Wizard data-10

Again, all students showed improvement and during the last two years the gap has narrowed between all third-graders and African-American third-graders from nine percentage points to five.

Here is one more chart. For the past two years, DPI has required school districts to administer the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) test to all second graders. According to DPI, PALS is designed to identify students who are in danger of falling behind in their acquisition of literacy skills and is not intended to measure overall student reading proficiency. Still, it is a helpful measure of where our students stand in terms of early literacy. The following chart shows the percentage of all Madison second graders and African-American second-graders who met the PALS literacy benchmark:

Wizard data-12

These results give us reason to expect that we will continue to see improvement in our third-grade reading scores during the upcoming school year.

It goes without saying that there is a lot more work to be done. We want all our third graders to be reading proficiently and we want to eliminate achievement gaps. But, as I have written elsewhere, incremental progress is good progress. The systems our schools have in place are showing positive results. We need to build on and expand the approaches that are working and the great work of our dedicated teachers.

We should not minimize the significance of the consistent improvement that these graphs illustrate. It has not happened before in Madison.

Before the school district started administering MAP tests, the statewide WKCE was our sole measure of year-to-year progress. The following graph shows the proficiency percentage of all MMSD third-graders as well as our African-American third-graders on the WKCE reading test from the 2005-06 school year through 2013-14. (The WKCE test was administered in the fall and so as a practical matter measured primarily the learning that took place the preceding year.)

Wizard data-11

There’s not much to brag about in those figures.

We had highly-skilled, hard-working and dedicated teachers in the decade before Jen Cheatham and her team arrived. To my mind, we came up a bit short during those years in terms of an overall coordinated, consistent and coherent approach to instruction that sharpens the impact of great teaching.

We have that now, and we also now have third graders who have had the benefit of four-year-old kindergarten.  We’re starting to see the kind of positive results we’ve been looking for over the last decade. The long road ahead of us tends to mute whatever sense of celebration we may feel about our current progress, but it is great to know that we are headed in the right direction.

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2 Responses to Good News: Madison Third-Grade Reading Scores Are Finally Trending Upward

  1. Leta Steffen says:

    Thanks for taking the time to walk through the district’s progress. Having children in MMSD schools, I have noticed a push to coordinate teaching practices across the grade level, and have witnessed excellent educators making the material accessible to everyone.

    I had read the MMSD update previously, but always find these graphs to be less than convincing. How consistent is the testing, and the method of assigning “proficiency”? Is there any understanding of repeatability (e.g. confidence intervals, error bars) so we can better assess the significance of this data? And what does proficiency mean, anyway?

  2. Mark says:

    Ed, as a regular reader of (and less frequent commentator on) your blog, let me repeat what I’ve said before, I consider it one of my primary go to” sources to go to for understanding the issues facing our schools. Having said that, I am surprised and disappointed to see literally nothing here about Personalized Pathways. Forgive me for posting the comment here, but there is no blog entry relevant to it that I can see.

    This has almost come out of the blue for me & other parents. We saw the news of the grant earlier this year, maybe thought “oh that sounds intriguing, might be a good option for some students, can’t wait to hear more,” but then nothing more until …. BAM! Suddenly we hear it is rolling out literally this month (8th grade signups), and the goal is not to make it an alternative, but rather the only approach available to high school students by the end of the rollout (about 7 years? Maybe less?) If you haven’t heard already, a large crowd of concerned parents turned out for an information meeting at West last night (if you haven’t heard, ask T.J., he was there for most of it). The meeting was an exercise in exasperation for most of us, as although the “plan” is to ultimately have 100% of students to eventually choose one of these “pathways,” time and again specific questions about details were met with variations on “nothing beyond the first two years of the Health pathways rollout has been planned.” We were given no information how many “pathways” there will ultimately be (not even a range) — let alone what specific “careers” they would be in.

    Also, I think I was not the only one who felt it was disingenuous how staff claimed there was no connection between PP and the referendum. The people who showed up at this meeting last night are among the most engaged in these issues, and we’re not idiots. Staff can’t say in one breath that PP is going to be great because, among other things, it will allow for “smaller learning communities” and “more personalized student engagement,” in another breath that the referendum is necessary to avoid staff cuts and funding of key initiatives, and then in a third breath that the adoption of PP is not tied to the fate of the referendum. Or rather, if that is literally true, then we as rational thinking adults have to question the purpose of this referendum, when we are being told that we supposedly have the resources to develop, implement, and staff such an enormous transformation of our high schools with existing resources.

    PP may be a good thing.

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