Summary: Reading Proficiency

Spotlight on Key Indicators: Reading Proficiency

Learn More About Reading Proficiency

Reading Proficiency
Student Demographics
Disconnected Youth
Pupil Support Services
Impacts of Special Health Care Needs on Children and Families
School Climate
School Attendance and Discipline
Math Proficiency
High School Graduation
College Eligibility
Why This Topic Is Important
Students proficient in reading are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, and have better employment and income prospects in adulthood than students with limited reading abilities, who often struggle to keep up across multiple subjects, including math and science (1, 2). Children who are behind in the early grades often stay behind, making high-quality early childhood education experiences critical, particularly for low-income children who tend to have fewer early learning opportunities and enter kindergarten at a disadvantage compared with higher-income students (1, 2). State and national data show persistent achievement gaps in reading by student socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, disability status, and English proficiency (3). In California, reading scores consistently rank below the national average, even though U.S. and California scores generally have improved since the 1990s (1, 3).
For more information on reading proficiency, see’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Reardon, S. F., et al. (2018). A portrait of educational outcomes in California. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from:

2.  Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2019). 2019 KIDS COUNT data book. Retrieved from:

3.  National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). The nation's report card. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
In 2019, among California public school students who took the CAASPP Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment for English language arts/literacy (ELA) in grades 3-11, 51% met or exceeded their grade-level standard, up from 44% in 2015. Younger children showed the largest improvements over this period, with proficiency increasing from 38% to 49% among 3rd graders and from 40% to 50% among 4th graders. Across local areas with data in 2019, the percentage of 3rd graders scoring at or above their grade-level ELA standard ranged from 28% to 63% for counties and from less than 20% to more than 90% for school districts.

Statewide data show variation in reading proficiency by English language fluency, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Across grade levels tested in 2019, 39% of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in California scored at or above their grade-level standard for ELA, compared with 70% of their non-disadvantaged peers. Among race/ethnicity groups with data, ELA proficiency rates were 65% or higher for Asian American, Filipino, white, and multiracial students, and lower than 45% for African American/black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups.
Policy Implications
Major education policy changes have taken place in California and the U.S. in the past decade, such as the state's Local Control Funding Formula, the Common Core State Standards, and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (1, 2). Education leaders and stakeholders are in the midst of implementing these large-scale changes, which have the potential to reduce long-standing achievement gaps in reading proficiency by race/ethnicity, income level, disability status, and English Learner status (1, 2). Although California reading scores have improved modestly in recent years, they continue to lag behind the nation, and achievement gaps persist (3). Further, while K–12 funding has increased in California, funding levels remain below the national average, and school districts continue to struggle financially (1, 4).

Policymakers and education leaders face significant challenges in improving reading proficiency and reducing inequities among California's 6+ million K–12 public school students, more than half of whom are economically disadvantaged (1). Continued efforts and investments are needed to successfully carry out recent reforms, refine them, and ensure educational equity for all students (1).

Policy and practice options that could improve reading proficiency include:
  • Expanding access—particularly among low-income children—to affordable, high-quality preschool or kindergarten readiness programs, which lay the foundation for later achievement (1, 3, 5)
  • Ensuring that K–12 reforms are implemented effectively at the local level and that they meet the needs of low-income students, children of color, those with disabilities, English Learners, and other vulnerable students; as part of this, supporting continuous improvement efforts and ensuring that the new Statewide System of School Support can meet districts' needs (1, 2)
  • Creating long-term financial solutions for California's K–12 education system, recognizing that to achieve the state's goals will require better than below-average funding (1, 4, 6)
  • Ensuring equitable student access to qualified teachers and rigorous, relevant instructional materials designed for the 21st century and aligned with Common Core Standards (1, 4, 6)
  • Addressing California’s teacher shortage by continuing to build a skilled and diverse pre-K–12 teaching workforce, reducing barriers to credentialing, and improving the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment for teachers in training (1, 7, 8)
  • Ensuring that all instructional leaders, including teachers and principals, have opportunities for professional learning and collaboration related to standards implementation, social-emotional learning, cultural competency, family engagement, and other issues critical to achieving equity (1)
  • Continuing to support pre-K–12 schools in creating positive school climates and developing comprehensive, evidence-based systems to address students' physical, emotional, behavioral, and other needs (1, 6)
  • Expanding the state's education data system and improving accessibility in order to provide meaningful information to local educators and leaders; also, ensuring that the system effectively tracks the successes and failures of reform efforts (1, 4, 9)
For more information related to reading proficiency and improving public education, see’s Research & Links section or visit California Education GPS, EdSource, or the Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse. Also see Policy Implications for other education topics in's Education & Child Care category.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Alliance for Continuous Improvement. (n.d.). California education GPS. Retrieved from:

2.  California Department of Education. (2019). California ESSA consolidated state plan. Retrieved from:

3.  Reardon, S. F., et al. (2018). A portrait of educational outcomes in California. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from:

4.  Public Policy Institute of California. (2020). California's future: K-12 education. Retrieved from:

5.  TKCalifornia. (n.d.) Transitional kindergarten teaching tools: English language arts. Early Edge California. Retrieved from:

6.  Children Now. (2020). 2020 California children's report card: A survey of kids' well-being and a roadmap for the future. Retrieved from:

7.  Darling-Hammond, L., et al. (2018). Teacher shortages in California: Status, sources, and potential solutions. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from:

8.  Lambert, D. (2019). California considers overhauling test of reading instruction for teachers in training. EdSource. Retrieved from:

9.  Koppich, J., et al. (2019). Developing a comprehensive data system to further continuous improvement in California. Policy Analysis for California Education. Retrieved from:
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