IF IT’S TRUE THAT THIRD-GRADE READING proficiency helps predict a child’s achievement later in life, then accord-ing to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College Careers (PARCC) exam, assessing third graders’ reading levels, the future doesn’t look bright for the majority of Rhode Island’s kids. In 2015, the exam showed that just over one-third of the state’s third graders were reading at grade level.
This is worrisome not only because the third grade reading level is the leading indicator of a variety of long-term successes in a child’s life, including graduation from high school and higher lifetime earnings. But poor reading may also signal health problems, from lead poisoning to behavioral health issues. Spurred by these statistics, in September of 2016, Governor Gina Raimondo and the Children’s Cabinet, a group of educators and health leaders charged with paying special attention to the wellbeing and education of Rhode Island’s children, joined together to launch the Third Grade Reading Action Plan. According to Cara Harrison ’11, a policy analyst for early childhood in Governor Raimondo’s office and the project manager for the Plan, its primary goal is for 75 percent of Rhode Island third graders to be reading at grade level by 2025.
THE NEED FOR NUMBERS
Reliable data is essential to estab-lishing and evaluating the Plan’s benchmarks. That’s why Governor Raimondo and the Children’s Cabinet have turned to the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute’s data core team for help. Michele Rogers, Ph.D., director of the data core, along with Raul Smego, MPH ’17, Lauren Schlichting, Ph.D., and Matthew Scarpaci, MPH, are busy undertaking complex data management, statistical analysis, and geocoding and mapping analysis using data on children from preg-nancy to third grade.
“The whole team is diving into this project. We are presenting maps that break down third grade reading by school district, by town, and by block,” said Institute director Patrick Vivier, MD, Ph.D. At the same time, they’re examining other factors that might be linked to reading proficiency levels. “We are also looking at premature babies compared to full-term babies,” Dr. Vivier said, “kids exposed to lead poisoning to those not exposed to lead poisoning. And absenteeism— is it because those kids who are absent the most are sick the most? Is this an illness issue, or is it something else?” By identifying children at risk, Dr. Vivier said, the team’s data can better inform public policy designed to improve outcomes for kids.
Because the governor’s Action Plan can’t succeed without cross-disciplin-ary collaboration, Dr. Vivier and members of his data core team meet monthly with the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH), and other state agencies to review the data analysis. They provide these agencies with important feedback so they can start using the data right away. In turn, the agencies provide the team with context, which helps inform their data interpretation. In what is truly a “partnership between government and academics,” said Dr. Vivier, “the academics are doing the research in a collaborative way throughout the process, as opposed to reporting on the data at the end of the plan.”
The success of the governor’s plan will have an impact on the Ocean State for decades to come, according to DOH Director Nicole Alexander- Scott, MD, MPH’11, F’09. “When a third-grader is comfortable reading and enjoys reading, it helps them develop socially and emotionally, and it sets them on a trajectory for success,” she said. “Governor Raimondo’s Third Grade Reading Action Plan is pushing us to ensure that all children in Rhode Island have an equal opportunity to grow up healthy and thrive, regardless of the ZIP code where they live or the language that they speak.”