Third Grade Reading

Last month The Gazette published Between the Lines, an article with reporting on Iowa’s third grade retention law by Andrew Phillips.

One of the hardest things for me to grasp is what exactly defines a proficient third grade reader.

In Iowa, it is a third grader who can meet or exceed the benchmark or cut scores on the universal screening assessment (not the Iowa Assessments or whatever end of year accountability assessment ends up being used). These benchmark or cut scores have been set based on a prediction that a child meeting at least that score will meet a proficiency cut score on a statewide assessment. Presumably these predictions are state specific, but that isn’t entirely clear.

Iowa’s current proficiency cut scores on the Iowa Assessments are equivalent to a 41st percentile rank in the 2000 national sample. So (possibly) an Iowa third grader is a proficient reader, for purposes of the retention law, if the third grader’s performance on the universal screening assessment predicts that the child would score in the 41st percentile or higher on the Iowa Assessments as compared to the 2000 national sample. That would explain the results reported in The Gazette article Almost one in four Iowa third-graders failed new reading tests, data show. [Consider what the retention numbers might look like pegged to proficiency cut scores on the Smarter Balanced assessments. Yikes.]

If that still seems a bit abstract (and perhaps, arbitrary), The Gazette offers a look at the fluency portion of the universal screening assessment in another article, Quiz: Are you smarter than a third grader? Note that the orange, blue, and green lines mark the words a third grader would have to read to or beyond to earn a passing score on the assessment in the fall, winter, and spring assessment periods.

FAST Fluency

Are you confident that a third grader only reaching the word “blue” should be headed for retention, while a third grader reaching the word “with” shouldn’t be? I’m not.

To be fair, I don’t see any claims to the effect that the cut scores on the universal screening assessments are valid for the purposes of determining retention in third grade. See here, here, and here. And yet, we are poised to use them for retention purposes anyway. Consider what that says about state-level education leadership in Iowa.

ADDED: Current Iowa benchmark scores on universal screening assessments.


One thought on “Third Grade Reading

  1. Matt Townsley

    Another related note: local school districts may choose the universal screening assessment used for the purpose of determining third grade reading proficiency. From my experience, the super-majority of districts are using the FAST suite of assessments, because FAST is provided free of charge by the Department of Education and make it much easier to report progress towards early literacy requirements of universal screening and progress monitoring. The FAST suite includes several different subtests, depending on the grade level. In 3rd grade, students may complete CBM-Reading and/or A(daptive)Reading (Source: It is my understanding each school must choose which sub-test it will use for reporting out proficiency. CBM-R leans towards fluency and aReading is comprehension. My guess (but only a guess) is that districts are using CBM-R for accountability purposes. Because Iowa Assessments are a timed test, they assess reading comprehension (It would be very challenging to assess fluency on a timed, multiple choice test) therefore any comparisons between Iowa Assessments and the FAST CBM-R may be more apples to oranges, in my opinion. This adds to the complexity of the third grade retention law. Some schools may be retaining students when their comprehension is on target, but fluency is not “at grade level.”

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