Third-grade Reading Proficiency: There’s work to do

If you’ve ever seen the look on a child’s face when they learn how to read a word, then you know there is simply nothing else like it. Reading is the basis for developing critical thinking skills and lifelong learning and that’s why it’s critical for our city to prioritize this issue. Students that do not end third grade reading proficiently will face a higher risk of unemployment, incarceration and a shortened life expectancy. We’re not simply talking about students passing a test; we’re talking about students developing the skills to survive.

That’s why my office started Turn the Page KC in 2011. We’ve used MAP scores to help us assess how far we’ve come as a city since then. The 2017 MAP scores are out, which means it’s time to take a look at our report card.

We’ve made progress. We’ve made great strides to increase our third-grade reading proficiency rate in Kansas City, Missouri, from 33% in 2011 to 55% in 2017. But we’re still below the state average of 62%. In order for our city average to reach and go beyond the state average 62%, we’re going to need to close some major gaps.

In the Kansas City metropolitan area, there still remains a substantial racial gap. In 2017, Black students made up 42% of the KCMO third grade population. All else being equal, we would expect a proportionate number of black students to represent the third grade population who scored Proficient or Advanced. However, black students made up only 27% of the Proficient or Advanced Third Grade population. The same disparity is true for Hispanic students in Kansas City. While Hispanic students fare better, their proficient population is still not proportional to their enrollment population. Meanwhile, white students, who make up 39% of the population, account for 57% of the proficient population. Clearly all is not equal or equitable. These looming disparities in who achieves what are often viewed as intractable social problems that won’t ever change. But I say that is a narrow perspective and limits our City’s potential from our diversity. We can do better, but we’ll all have to roll up our sleeves.

In order to close the gaps in reading proficiency experienced by Black and Hispanic students, we must close the access gaps to quality learning and support services, and in those efforts, we all have a role to play. Schools, families, nonprofits, program providers and community members must be a part of it. High quality pre-K and early learning services, like home visiting programs and health screenings, help to better prepare students. Parents that talk, read and play with their kids provide their child’s brain with the stimulation they need to build a strong foundation for lifelong learning. Community members that volunteer for programs, like Lead to Read KC, the Phoenix Family HIKE program, the Upper Room, and Reach Out and Read, provide our early elementary students with more opportunities to practice their literacy skills and allow volunteers to become greater stakeholders in the educational community.

The Hickman Mills School District illustrates what these efforts can look like. Last school year, all elementary schools in the Hickman Mills School District performed below the state average. However, in the 2014-2015 school year, Hickman Mills began providing universal preschool, and when those students reach the third grade in 2018-2019 school year, we expect third-grade reading proficiencies in the district to increase substantially. In the meantime, Turn the Page KC’s Summer Learning Work Group is looking to expand the availability of quality summer learning opportunities and school year access to tutors for the Hickman Mills School District. With coordinated community planning, investment, and engagement, we can move the needle.

When the National Civic League named Kansas City, Missouri, an All-America City for progress in third-grade reading proficiency, it signaled that we’re on the right path. But we’re not done yet. In the coming year, we must keep our foot on the pedal to remove barriers, expand opportunities, and continue building cross-sector collaboration to achieve third-grade reading proficiency for all kids in our community.

Let’s put our children first.

To take part in increasing third-grade reading proficiency in KC, join us by volunteering. Find opportunities at

For school enrollment information, Show Me KC Schools websites and services are best place to start at

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