Third-grade reading proficiency scores among children in Flint and Detroit, Mich., demonstrate that poverty, trauma, and reduced academic ability are linked.
Four years ago, as brown lead-tainted water began flowing through city taps, reading proficiency scores of third graders started to sink to levels resembling those in developing nations. In Flint, third-grade readers’ proficiency scores went down the drain, from 41.6 percent in 2014 to 10.7 percent in 2017. Detroit’s level now sits at a stagnant 9.9 percent, according to i-Ready testing. Lead poisoning has affected thousands of children there during redevelopment of economically blighted areas.
Flint school board Vice President Harold Woodson told the Detroit Free Press, “We’re in crisis mode.” Studies have linked lead exposure to learning disabilities, but Woodson said lead is only part of the larger problem of poverty in Flint.
Poverty and low reading ability go hand in hand, according to sociologist Donald Hernandez, whose research is featured in The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. “Children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers,” he wrote. And the children who don’t graduate don’t easily find a place in society.
Low reading scores have only compounded anxieties over the Flint water crisis, as the city continues to struggle to replace water pipes and analyze lead-poisoning damage in children.
This month, Democratic state Rep. Sheldon Neeley of Flint plans to open a virtual library and family literacy center, complete with reading coaches. But, he added, “This community is traumatized, and the state has not dealt with trauma.”