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New report links reading and graduation rates

By Julie Wurth/The News-GazetteChildren's advocates have focused for several years on early learning -- preparing young children for kindergarten -- but a new report says what comes next is just as crucial.

 “Great at Eight,” the 2011 Illinois Kids Count report, notes that the state's third- and fourth-graders have made only modest improvements in reading since 2003, and wide disparities remain between students of different races and income levels.

 Why is that important? Children make a key transition in third and fourth grades, shifting from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” -- applying their newfound reading skills to more complex subjects.

 “Children who can master this shift are more likely to be successful in school, work, and life,” say the authors of the report, released today.

 In 2009, about 65 percent of Illinois public school students scored at or above “basic” achievement levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That's up only slightly from 61 percent in 2003. And the numbers vary widely by ethnic group -- 78 percent of white students but only 40 percent of African-American students and 48 percent of Latinos.

 Similarly, on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, only 60 percent of low-income students met or exceeded state standards for reading achievement at the end of third grade, compared to 88 percent of other students. Similar gaps are found in Champaign-Urbana schools.

 Studies show a “clear association” between early reading proficiency and high school graduation rates, the report says.

 Compiled by Voices for Illinois Children, the report calls for investing in the “whole child” from birth to age 8, from adequate prenatal care programs to prevent developmental delays in babies to “quality learning environments” in preschool and beyond.

 But it also says the state's budget crisis threatens to erode investments in early childhood education, health insurance coverage, children's mental health services and other essential programs. Bilingual education, reading improvement grants and a summer program for struggling students were all hit by budget cuts. And enrollment in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs dropped the past two years because of budget cuts and delayed payments to preschool providers.

 The report acknowledges that additional spending cuts are inevitable, as the recent tax increase won't be enough to close the state's budget gap.

 Meanwhile, poverty is growing. In 2009, 45 percent of Illinois schoolchildren were from low-income families, up from 37 percent a decade earlier.

 “Unfortunately, child poverty has increase sharply during the recession and is expected to continue to rise over the next several years,” the report says.

 Children in poverty face “enormous hurdles to learning,” the report says. They tend to have fewer early-learning opportunities, poor nutrition, more chronic health problems developmental delays, and greater risk of emotional problems. Once they get to school, they are more likely to be absent or transfer schools, both shown to affect academic achievement.

 Brenda Koester, coordinator of the University of Illinois Family Resiliency Center, said rising rates of unemployment and child poverty have made ensuring school success even more difficult.

 The report includes a wealth of data on school enrollment, class sizes, reading and math achievement, poverty, unemployment, student health, child abuse and other factors affecting the “whole child.”

 The full report is available at

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