By Cynthia L. Cates, Executive Director, Kosciusko Literacy Services
Long before adults become casualties of illiteracy, they were children who could not read. The window of opportunity for literacy never fully closes, but learning to read becomes more difficult as one ages. The literacy and language centers of the brain develop rapidly during the first five years of life. Though any child may have reading difficulties, children living in low-income homes are more vulnerable to not developing reading skills.
The Indiana Literacy Association estimates that between 800,000 and 1,500,000 adults in Indiana read at basic or below basic levels of comprehension. These literacy skills are below the necessary level to function effectively in today’s society. In addition, 10% [349,000] of the working age population, 25 to 64, do not have a high school or equivalency diploma.
In recent years, Indiana has improved the graduation rate. From the 2008-09 to the 2012-13 school year, Indiana has increased the percent of students completing high school on time by 6%. The rate in the 2012-13 was 81% which ranked Indiana 29th of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nebraska and Wisconsin topped the list with 93% of students completing high school on time.
[Indiana spent $11,093 per student in 2013. The Per-Pupil Educational Expenditures Adjusted for Regional Cost Differences placed Indiana 28th of the 51 reporting entities. Vermont and Alaska spent the most per student at $19,134 and $18,841 respectively. Arizona and Utah were the lowest at $7,733 and $7,084.]
In 2015, Indiana ranked the fourth best nationwide in the percent of children (25%) who tested below basic for fourth grade reading levels. Only Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont (18 %, 21%, 24% respectively) had lower percentages of children not passing the standardized tests. The national average was 32% of fourth graders failing the standardized tests. Though Indiana is better than the national average, one-fourth (approximately 22,000 children) of the fourth grade students have not mastered minimal reading skills. Fourth grade reading levels are a critical turning point because fourth grade students are no longer learning to read, they must read to learn.
Indiana Title I schools in 2015 had 67% of fourth graders score the below proficient reading level. A proficient student has mastered the reading skills for the grade level. Schools that did not have Title I funding had 50% of the children score below proficient. A four-year average places the Title I schools at 73.5% [76.5% nationally] of children not reading at the proficient level and non-Title I Schools at 53.5% [51.8% nationally] of children not reading at the proficient level. These figures mean that 60% (approximately 53,000) of Indiana’s fourth graders do not read at the proficient level.
In 2015, 72% of Indiana children on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program scored below proficient, while 50% of children not eligible for the program scored below proficient. The four-year averages were 76.8% [81.0% nationally] of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program children and 51.5% [51.0% nationally] of the paid lunch children scoring below proficient. Additionally, 86% of English Language Learners were below proficient compared to 58% of non-English Language Learners scoring below proficient.
Indiana had 49.1% of the total school enrollment on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program in 2015. This percentage breaks into 41.3% of the lunches were free and 7.8% were reduced prices. These percentages represent over a half million children who are vulnerable due to poverty to not reading on grade level.
Clearly, poverty plays a role in literacy. Students from low-income homes are more vulnerable to lacking literacy skills, but only 50% of children not in poverty are reading at the proficient level. Children who do not develop reading skills during the early years are prone to leaving school without a diploma, which leads to a myriad of social problems including a dependence on welfare, teen pregnancy, higher crime rates, and a perpetuation of the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
The best way to improve adult literacy levels in the future is to improve literacy levels of children beginning before the children enter kindergarten. To make a lasting improvement in society, the cycle of poverty and illiteracy needs to be broken. Education is the best defense against poverty, and literacy is the foundation of all education.
[Sources: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/; http://www.stats.indiana.edu/]