California’s low literacy rate has left quite a tarnish on the “Golden State.” According to a recently released report from World Population Review, a non-partisan data-sharing organization, the state ranks lowest in the nation for literacy, with only 77% of those age 15 and older reading at mid- to highly proficient levels. Looked at another way, nearly one out of four Californians couldn’t do what you’re doing right now – read this article. And if that’s not disturbing enough, consider the fact that California spends more money on education, per student, than any other state.

Orange County Outpaces Most of California

Not all counties are “created equal” – literacy rates vary widely across the state. For instance, students in Orange County scored higher than those in all but a handful of other California counties in testing conducted just prior to the pandemic. Still, only 60% of OC students met or exceeded the grade-level standard in English Language Arts. In other words, four out of ten children in one of California’s highest-performing areas were below a proficient reading level.
Understanding And Addressing The Problem Of Low LiteracySource:, 2019 CA Assessment of Student Performance and Progress

The Fallout of Low Reading Proficiency

The consequences of not being able to read well can last a lifetime. According to Bill Lucia, President and Chief Executive Officer of EdVoice, “Failure to teach children to read effectively has well-documented long-term adverse effects throughout their lives.”

For example:

  • Reading skills are the building blocks to all future learning. Academic apprehension – whether in English, history, science, the arts – is dependent upon literacy. This even spills over into mathematics (think word problems).
  • Poor literacy affects students’ social and emotional well-being – whether that manifests itself in low self-confidence, feelings of inadequacy, or an ability to make connections with peers.
  • Long-term research demonstrates that “students who struggle with reading are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their counterparts.”
  • Success in college can be more difficult for students who are not literacy-proficient. According to the California State University system, 16.1% of incoming freshmen were required to complete English remediation courses before they were allowed to take a college-level English course.
  • Illiteracy costs American taxpayers an estimated $20 billion each year.

Californians aren’t taking their state’s poor literacy outcomes lightly. Some have even sought legal remedies for what they consider a failure of the state to deliver “the core content of a basic education as guaranteed as a fundamental right” under the California constitution.

Addressing the Problem

Not surprisingly, the path to literacy begins early in a child’s education. The National Conference of State Legislatures contends that “Third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn’. If they are not proficient readers when they begin fourth grade, as much as half of the curriculum they will be taught will be incomprehensible.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) suggests that several things must be present in an effective reading program to evade and/or mitigate literacy deficiencies:

Appropriate Reading Assessments
Standardized testing is important in understanding a student’s overall reading abilities and determining if students are appropriately prepared for further learning and educational advancement, reports Cambridge University.

“Students have cognitive demands that require teachers to determine what their learning strengths and needs are, especially in relation to expected learning outcomes,” said Dr. Kelly Robinette, Director of Data and Accountability at Fairmont Schools in Orange County. “This is where benchmark testing can provide valuable insights for teachers on their students’ strengths and learning needs, early enough to intervene effectively.”

Timely Intervention for Struggling Students – When it comes to addressing literacy, “sooner” is definitely better than “later” – curricular and cognitive demands continue to grow for students, so they need interventions to keep them on track. Interim benchmark assessments in reading are an important strategy to keep teachers informed periodically on how well their students are moving towards grade-level expectations in reading. Once teachers determine the areas of reading where their students need support, they can develop strategies to help meet those needs. “A good benchmark assessment will inform teachers not only what reading domains need improvement, such as inferential or analytical reading, but also what kinds of strategies can address specific needs,” said Robinette. “Sometimes teachers need to reteach literacy concepts to the entire class, and other times, provide support for individual students. The goal is to keep every student as close to on track as possible.”

High Quality Professional Development – Good quality professional development is key to keeping teachers apprised of best practices in literacy instruction. Research shows that the single biggest predictor of student success is the quality of instruction they receive. Research also demonstrates that many classroom teachers have not received adequate pre-service or in-service professional development to apply evidence-based reading practices.

“The importance of high quality, ongoing professional development around literacy cannot be overstated,” said Robinette. “This requires a commitment – both of finances and time – from schools. Teachers need to pursue a growing understanding of the science of reading, as well as current research-based strategies for effectively addressing literacy needs.”

A Profile in Literacy Success

To be sure, the fact that California ranks lowest in the nation for literacy should give pause to everyone who lives in the state. At the same time, schools which prioritize reading assessments, intervention, and professional development have the potential for much more favorable student outcomes.

Fairmont Schools – Orange County’s oldest and largest secular, co-educational preschool – 12th grade private school – is one such success story. Employing teachers who participate in thoughtful training and mandatory yearly evaluation, it leverages standardized assessments to create individualized learning plans for its students, and employs ongoing professional development to ensure its educators are availed of the most up-to-date literacy strategies. As a result, Fairmont students achieve significantly higher literacy rates than their peers in Orange County public schools.

Fairmont’s reading curriculum in grades K-5 is one year ahead when compared to public schools. In order to have a standardized test that measures its advanced academic program, the school administers ERB’s suite of assessments, which are aligned with the more stringent national reading standards. Even with these more rigorous standards, the average reading level for a Fairmont student in the pivotal 3rd grade is 5.37 – nearly a mid-5th grade level.

As for the few students who do not meet the “proficient” level (most of whom are English language learners or new to the school), Fairmont assigns them to intensive remediation programs which yield roughly a 15% growth in reading – just between the fall and winter testing alone.

So what are the outcomes for literacy at your child’s school? Are you concerned that your student isn’t performing at their best or that they may have fallen behind during the pandemic? If so, perhaps it’s time to consider a school with proven results for producing proficient readers.