The chairman of the state Board of Education wants to focus on third grade. The Rev. James T. Meeks says students who fall behind at that point have a hard time catching up, and they are ultimately more likely to drop out, be on public assistance and be incarcerated. Therefore, he says he has one goal:
"And the one goal is to make sure that every student in the state of Illinois is reading at or above grade level by the time they finish third grade," he said.
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How to do that? He's for all-day kindergarten, but he says some kids are behind even there, which is why pre-school should be offered to more students. The state budget this year boosts funding for pre-school by $25 million.
Meeks is also concerned about an achievement gap, in which students who are low-income, minority or both do worse at school than the white non-poor population. This is significant, because a majority of Illinois public school students are minorities or low-income.
Meeks says in schools where poverty is under 20 percent, 77 percent of students meet state standards. Where poverty is 80 percent or more, 37 percent meet standards (from school year 2013-14). In elementary schools, 59 percent of students meet state standards for reading, but for white kids it's 67 percent, Latinos 43 percent and black students 36 percent. He says Illinois is making progress at lifting all scores, but not in closing the gap.