States Where Children are Struggling the Most to Read

February 7, 2014 by Thomas C. Frohlich

According to a recent report, children’s reading performances have improved in the past decade. While 70% of fourth graders had weak reading skills in 2003, that rate dropped to 66% in 2013.

However, there are still significant differences in literacy rates among students across the country. In Massachusetts, just 53% of fourth graders were not proficient readers, the best among all states. In both Mississippi and New Mexico, on the other hand, 79% of kids in fourth grade were not proficient readers, worst in the nation.

Click here to see the states where children are struggling to read

A variety of factors contribute to a child’s chances of reaching reading proficiency. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report, “Brain research tells us that the first eight years are critical for building the foundation for future learning and emotional development.”

While literacy rates have improved nationwide, the gap in the ability of children from high- and low-income families has continued to widen. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report, “In every state children from low-income families are less likely to be reading than their higher-income peers, and in nearly all states, the gap increased over the past decade.”

Last year, 80% of fourth graders from low-income families were not proficient readers. Nationwide, less than half of kids the same age from higher-income families were not strong readers. In six of the 10 states where children struggled most to read, 85% of fourth graders from low-income families failed to meet proficiency levels.

Poverty rates were also higher in these states. The three states with the lowest proficiency rates for fourth graders — Mississippi, New Mexico, and Louisiana — also had the three highest poverty rates in the nation.

While the relationship is not clear, education expenditure could play a role in proficiency rates. A number of states where children struggled the most to read were also among the bottom 10 states in per-pupil expenditure in fiscal 2011. That year, per pupil spending exceeded $10,000 in only three of the 10 states with the lowest fourth grade reading proficiency scores. Nationwide, schools spent an average of $10,560 per pupil. Mississippi and Arizona spent less than $8,000 per student.

However, expenditure does not explain low performance. Alaska’s per student spending was the second-highest in the nation in 2011, but its fourth grade proficiency rates were among the worst last year.

To identify the states where children are struggling the most to read, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from “Early Reading Proficiency in the United States,” a 2014 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization focused on improving the lives of disadvantaged children. The foundation used figures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2003 and 2013, and split classified students as coming from higher or lower-income families based on eligibility for the National School Lunch Program. We also reviewed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey including poverty, income, immigration, and language-spoken statistics as well as educational attainment figures. Per pupil spending figures, also from the bureau, were considered for fiscal 2011. Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index provided data on health outcomes and basic access to necessities.

These are the states where children are struggling the most to read.

10. Texas
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 72% (tied-8th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 83% (tied-8th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 24% (15th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $8,671 (9th lowest)

Overall, fourth graders in Texas were less likely than kids in many other states to be strong readers. But proficiency rates differed considerably by level of income. Texan fourth graders from higher-income families scored better in reading than fourth graders nationally, with just slightly more than half reading below proficiency levels in 2013. Children from poor families, on the other hand, did much worse with more than 83% reading below proficiency. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, poor health during infancy can hamper language and important skill development. In its 2012 healthy behavior index, Gallup rated Texas among the worst in the nation.

9. South Carolina
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 72% (tied-8th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 83% (tied-8th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 27% (11th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $8,986 (14th lowest)

Last year, 72% of fourth graders in South Carolina were not proficient in reading, only a two percentage point improvement from 2003, when 74% were not proficient readers. Early education is a major determinant for success later in life, according to the report. As of 2012, 10% of South Carolinians ages 16 to 19 were out of school but not working. This was among the higher rates in the U.S. Additionally, just 85% of adults aged 25 and older had at least a high school diploma as of 2012, lower than most other states. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley recently unveiled plans to increase funding to poorer school districts as well as to help students struggling to read.

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8. Arizona
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 72% (tied-8th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 85% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 28% (tied-8th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $7,666 (4th lowest)

Between 2009 and 2011, 67% of eligible Arizona children were not enrolled in preschool, more than any state except for Nevada. The state’s high poverty rate of nearly 19% was one of the worst in the nation and likely a factor in the state’s poor reading proficiency rates among children. Past high levels of immigration in Arizona and the influx of English as a second language students and households likely also lowered reading proficiency among the state’s children. More than one in five state residents spoke mainly Spanish at home in 2012, more than all but four other states. For foreign-born children, the challenge is often two-fold: learning a new language while struggling with lower family wages, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

7. West Virginia
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 73% (tied-4th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 76% (tied-6th lowest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 30% (5th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $11,846 (14th highest)

Last year, 73% of West Virginia fourth graders were not considered proficient readers.While the median household income in the state was just $40,196 in 2012, among the nation’s lowest, it wasn’t just student from low-income families that struggled with reading. Students from high-income families struggled with reading as well, with 63% not proficient in reading, the highest percentage in the nation among that group. Also, 30% of eighth graders scored below proficient level in reading last year, fifth worst in the nation. Recently, StudentsFirst’s State Policy Report Card awarded West Virginia’s schools a failing grade due to weak spending controls and limited parental empowerment.

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6. Nevada
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 73% (tied-4th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 83% (tied-8th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 28% (tied-8th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $8,527 (8th lowest)

Reading proficiency among fourth graders in Nevada improved by seven percentage points since 2003, more than in many other states. Primary school students, however, were still far below reading proficiency standards, with 73% of fourth graders struggling to read last year. One contributing factor may be poor health in the state. More than 22% of Nevada residents didn’t have health insurance in 2012, second-worst in the nation. Low educational attainment is a problem for many residents of Nevada. Only 22.4% of residents 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree, among the lowest rates in the country in 2012.

5. California
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 73% (tied-4th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 85% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 28% (tied-8th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $9,139 (16th lowest)

No state had a larger share of foreign-born residents than California, where 27% of all people were born outside the U.S. More than 44% of California residents spoke a language other than English at home, the most of any state in the nation. Among such residents, Spanish was the most common language, with 29% of California residents speaking Spanish at home. For many such residents, learning to read English proficiently may be difficult. Last year, 73% of California fourth graders lacked proficiency in reading. However, this marked a substantial improvement from 2003, when 79% of fourth graders were not considered proficient readers.

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4. Alaska
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 73% (tied-4th highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 85% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 29% (tied-6th highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $16,674 (2nd highest)

With a low poverty rate in 2012 and some of the highest education expenditures in the country in fiscal 2011, Alaska’s poor proficiency reading rates may come as somewhat of a surprise. Not only were children struggling to read in Alaska more than in most other states, but also the state was one of just a few where reading proficiency worsened between 2003 and 2013. While the link between early enrollment and performance is far from clear, part of the explanation could be low preschool enrollment between 2009 and 2011 when about two-thirds of children eligible for preschool did not attend, more than all but two other states. The issue could also be linked to Alaska’s vast size and the difficulty of providing reading resources to remote towns.

3. Louisiana
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 77%
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 85% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 32% (tied-3rd highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $10,723 (22nd highest)

A decade ago, as many as 80% of Louisiana fourth graders were not proficient in reading, third most in the nation. Ten years later, the rate improved slightly to 77% — still third worst in the nation. For the state’s lower-income students, reading proficiency remained especially elusive. Last year, 85% of fourth graders from lower-income families were not proficient readers. Also, nearly one-third of students were still not strong readers by the eighth grade. Despite these low scores, groups such as StudentsFirst have praised the state’s approach to education, highlighting the state’s commitment to charter schools and giving students more choices in where to go to school.

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2. New Mexico
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 79% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 85% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 33% (2nd highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $9,070 (15th lowest)

Last year, 61% of New Mexican children from higher-income families struggled with reading, more than in any state except for West Virginia. Widespread poverty in the state, however, is still a likely factor in low literacy rates. More than one in five state residents lived below the poverty line in 2012, among the very worst in the nation. Children from poorer families fared worse than those from higher-income families, with 85% unable to read proficiently last year, tied for the worst nationwide. In the eighth grade, many students in New Mexico were also struggling. About one-third of eighth graders were not proficient readers in 2013, second-worst in the country. The state recently reformed its teacher evaluation system, which may will lead to improvement in the future.

1. Mississippi
> Pct. 4th grade students below reading proficiency: 79% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – low-income: 85% (tied-the highest)
> Pct. not proficient – eighth grade: 36% (the highest)
> 2011 spending per pupil: $7,928 (5th lowest)

Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation by a number of measures. The state’s median household income was just $37,095 in 2012, while more than 24% of residents lived below the poverty line.In 2012 Mississippi residents were more likely to lack access to basic needs than Americans in any other state. The large population of economically disadvantaged residents has likely contributed to the state’s low reading proficiency rates. As of 2013, 79% of fourth graders were not proficient readers, tied for the highest percentage in the nation. Last year 85% of fourth grade students from lower-income families were lacked proficiency in reading, tied for the worst in the nation. However, higher-income students also did not score well either — 58% were not strong readers. That same year, 36% of eighth graders were still not proficient readers, more than any other state and well above the 23% of eighth graders nationwide.