Fourth-Grade Slump

Terri Bollinger, principal at the Ridge Central elementary school, has noticed a troubling trend. Her third graders are doing incredibly well. Most of them meet or exceed Illinois state reading standards. But her fifth graders aren't showing the same kind of improvement--and in 2005, their reading scores even dropped a little. Bollinger thinks she knows why. For complicated reasons, some kids lose their mojo when they get to fourth grade.

Principals and teachers around the country are growing increasingly concerned with what they call the fourth-grade slump. The malaise, which can strike children any time between the end of the second and the middle of fifth grade, is marked by a declining interest in reading and a gradual disengagement from school. What's causing it? Some say fourth graders get distracted by videogames, organized sports and after-school activities. Others worry that kids are burning out. No Child Left Behind has created an intense push to teach kids the fundamentals of reading. "We kill them with tests in third grade. By fourth grade, they're tired," says Gina Defalco, a fourth-grade teacher in Fredericksburg, Va. The slump was first noted in the 1960s, but with schools under pressure to show that kids in all grades are improving, administrators are taking a fresh look at the problem.

For a lot of kids, fourth grade is a turning point. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, American kids' reading scores are improving in the early years of elementary school. After fourth grade, test scores are flat. "While there's no question schools are doing better with young children," says Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association, "kids just don't continue to make the same gains." Kids read less as they get older, too. In a 2006 survey by Scholastic Inc., 40 percent of kids between the ages of 5 and 8 read every day. At fourth grade, though, that rate declined to 29 percent.

Testing may be contributing to the slump in subtle, curricular ways. At every level of schooling, says Jeffrey Wilhelm, a reading expert from Boise State University, "kids need to use a wide range of reading materials--nonfiction and expository writing--and lots of vocabulary words." But in an effort to "teach to the test," many schools are replacing social studies and science with reading instruction in the early years, and that hurts kids. Without this critical base, many kids aren't equipped to do the abstract thinking and learning required of them as they move on.

Maturity can be an issue, too. Between third and fourth grade, kids go from learning to read to reading to learn. Textbooks get more difficult--instead of reading about Dot and Spot, fourth graders read about the solar system. To keep up, 9-year-olds have to be able to decode words, comprehend sentences and make inferences about what paragraphs mean. If they can't, they get frustrated fast. Elise Holston, principal of the Kempton Elementary School in Spring Valley, Calif., found that her school's fourth-grade slump started in third grade. On statewide tests, 26 percent of Kempton's second graders were proficient or advanced in reading. A year later, that rate dropped to 15 percent. So this year, Holston's third and fourth graders adopted a new reading program. Kids learn about the Everglades from a textbook, but there's also a short video so kids who were struggling can keep up.

Back at Ridge Central, Bollinger has her own slump-busting strategy, and it looks a little like a bribe. Six hundred minutes of reading equals a free trip to a local amusement park. It was an offer that fourth grader Brian Widmer couldn't refuse. He still loves computers and hockey, but he's recently discovered the joys of the "Captain Underpants" books. "It gave him motivation," says mom Lesley. Just enough, she hopes, to get him on his way.