Student test scores and state literacy rates show need to read in Kansas

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TOPEKA (KSNT) – First Lady Mary Brownback will host the 5th annual Kansas Book Festival at the State Capitol this weekend. Nearly two dozen authors will speak and also sign their books. But as the state celebrates reading, we look at recent concerns over Kansas students’ literacy scores. We try to make sense of the statistics that seem to show a need to grow readers in the Sunflower State.

As we first reported a few days ago, results of a statewide test released by the Kansas Department of Education shows that less than half of most grade levels tested are ready for college reading. We took a closer look and found that the overall literacy rate in Kansas also shows there’s more to learn.

Children we observed sitting in a story time at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library aren’t reading yet, but the hope is that they will not be one of the 8% in the State of Kansas who lack basic literacy skills. That’s according to the most recent U.S. government numbers from 2003.

“If you’re illiterate, there’s just a lot of this world you do not have access to,” said Kim Rasmussen, a K-12 curriculum coordinator for USD 437. “The factor in research that contributes most to drop outs is whether they are struggling readers or not.

The Kansas statistics you just read about show that Shawnee County ties with the numbers statewide. Geary County fairs slightly worse at 9%, while 11% of Lyon County’s population lacks the basic ability to read. Riley County scored the best at 6%. Rasmussen says developing reading skills starts long before your child’s first day of school.

“Read to those children, sing to those children, have conversations,” she encourages parents.

Ahead of the Kansas Book Festival, we asked the first lady about the student test scores. She says if the numbers are an accurate reflection, they do concern her. However, the First Lady points out that this is just the first year of the test there aren’t previous numbers to compare them to.

“I don’t think we can progress as a state if we have citizens who aren’t reading well,” Mrs. Brownback said in an exclusive interview with KSNT News anchor Jared Broyles. “Reading is a basic skill. You can’t go to the grocery store and see what it costs or what you’re buying. It involves everything in life.”

Mrs. Brownback invited Kansans to come out and rediscover their love of reading or feed their need to read at the Kansas Book Festival this Saturday from 9 to 4 pm at the State Capitol.

Rasmussen says it becomes more difficult to learn to read as we age.

“When you get that self-awareness that you’re not very good at something, you haven’t been successful at it, there’s a lot of attitudinal or motivational things that come into that,” the curriculum coordinator explained as some of the reasons teens and adults struggle to improve their reading skills.

However, she says there is help available for adults who want to learn, like Topeka 501’s Adult Education Center or through a family reading program at “Let’s Help”, also in Topeka. Check with your local school or library to learn about resources in your area. You can also visit the Kansas Board of Regent’s website which has information on all of the adult education centers.

The following are answers to more in-depth questions KSNT News had concerning literacy and the importance of early education and intervention for children. Read Kim Rasmussen with USD 437’s answers below:

1)      How important is starting reading efforts early in a child’s life?

From day one, a child’s brain begins forming connections very quickly—connections which build the foundation for all learning he or she will do later in life. In fact 90% of children’s critical brain development occurs by age 5. Children who are read to, sung to, and talked to from a young age develop bigger vocabularies, become better readers, and are more likely to succeed in school.

Research indicates that when children are reached with high quality early learning experiences, they are 40% less likely to fall behind in school and 70% more likely to graduate from high school. In fact, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, half of the school achievement gap between economically-disadvantaged young children and their more affluent peers starts before kindergarten.

(From Make Way for Book at

2)      Does it become more difficult for children/teens/adults to learn to read as they age?

Yes, for one thing, if you haven’t been very good at something do you usually like it?  Motivation to learn to read becomes an issue.  Then there is this lost “progression of reading skills” from fundamentals and building skils that didn’t happen over time.”  With very big deficits,it is a lot to revisit and reteach. Therefore, it is difficult from a time standpoint to be out of your regular classes to redo the teaching and having the time to make it effective. There is no magic approach as students need need more teaching, with more precision, and with more careful adjustment.  Also it is imperative to partner with the older student.  This teaching can’t be done unto them. As older students and adults struggle to read and need to go back to what they journeyed through before, they need to recognize the personal power of being a reader.  It doesn’t happen in short time, but with strategic instruction even older students can make dramatic improvement and become functioning readers.

This website from Great City Schools ( has information about reading and struggling older readers.

3)      What types of intervention do schools offer for children who are struggling?

First we work with children in the regular grade level classroom to provide instruction on their reading level, as well as on grade level reading material.  If needs persist, then extra support based on key areas of reading is pursued receiving teaching from an interventionist. This instruction is in addition to what they they are learning in the classroom.  The extra support is intensive, strategic teaching.

4)      What can and should parents be doing at home to help their children learn to read?

Read to your children from the time they are babies and well toward their teen years. Vocabulary development at age three has been found to predict reading achievement by third grade. The quality and quantity of language that children hear in their first three years contributes to their cognitive development, and the interactions children have with language in their earliest years form the foundation of their ability to be able to read and to comprehend what they read later on. When children are read stories, they encounter new words beyond the words that they would hear as families go about their “daily business” together, as they eat, get ready for bed, go to the store, for example. When parents read to children of any age, they hear more complex and sophisticated language which become the building blocks of their literacy and language development. Researchers have found that families who share books tend to have more “extra talk” beyond the daily “business talk” that happens as families move through their day and routines together. This “extra talk” also tends to contain more affirmations, which contributes to children’s self-esteem. In a study conducted by researchers Hart and Risley, they found that the children who received exposure to more words and affirming content had larger vocabularies and more sophisticated verbal and literacy skills. (From Make Way for Book at   According to the most recent Kid’s and Family Reading Report from Scholastic, 40% of children ages 6 – 11 who were read books aloud at home when they were younger say they wished their parents had continued reading aloud to them.  More than 80% of the children in the survey also reported that they loved or liked it a lot when their parent read to them because it was a special time together.

Ensure you child finds things they like to read and develops the habit of reading – that they are someone who frequently reads for interest and pleasure.  A school term we use for this is independent reading.  Independent reading, supported both at school and at home, builds successful readers.  Frequent reading leads to becoming a proficient reader. Proficient readers are equipped to thrive personally and academically.

This brochure ( provides additional, more detailed ideas based on students reading progression from infancy to third grade,

5)      Why is literacy important?

Research indicates that children who are struggling readers in 1st grade are 88% more likely to be struggling readers in 4th grade. When children struggle to read in 4th grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school. That’s why there is so much attention on 3rd grade reading scores in Kansas and across the nation because if children are not on track by the end of third grade, their chances for success decrease substantially. It is far easier to reach children starting from birth with quality early education experiences than to try and catch them up later with interventions in school.  In addition, to the academic attainment associated with graduation, successful readers have fuller access to a wider range of career choices.

6)      Are you aware of any resources available for teens and even adults who struggle to read? (whether school or outside of school such as the public library)

If teens are in school, then there are educators in place to provide support.  It is very likely in this day that those students are already on the radar of staff and have been targeted for reading intervention.  However, if a parent, or a teen advocating for themself, believes additional literacy support is needed approach an English teacher, a librarian, or a school administrator and ask for evaluation that can determine steps for needed support. One self-help way is for a student to read frequently whatever it is they like to read that they can read.  In time, with frequent reading, reading capacities naturally grow.  A school librarian or a public librarian is an excellent resource to suggest books that fit an individual’s reading level and interest.  Open up to them about one’s needs.

In terms of adults who need to learn to read or strengthen their literacy skills,the Kansas Board of Regents coordinates support as a part of its mission to further adults’ career and college readiness.  One key aspect of this is literacy support to drop outs and adults.

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