Skip to main content

Indicator: Math and reading proficiency in grade 3


Students demonstrate proficiency in math and reading/English language arts according to high-quality state standards.


Percentage of students in grade 3 who meet grade-level standards in reading/English language arts and math as measured by state standardized tests

Data Source(s)


Why it matters

Math and reading proficiency are highly predictive of later outcomes, including high school graduation and college enrollment. This indicator focuses on grade 3 (rather than grades 4 or 5), reflecting the consensus that a strong early start and early intervention are crucial for success. Reflecting disparities in access to strong systems and supports for learning, there are large and persistent gaps between the test scores of students who are Black, Latino, and from low-income households and their White, Asian, and more economically advantaged counterparts. For example, among 4th graders, 45 percent of White students were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2019, compared to 18 percent of Black students and 23 percent of Latino students.

What to know about measurement

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), schools must collect and report test scores for students in grades 3–8, making data for this indicator broadly available. However, states use different assessments that vary in both content and proficiency standards, as shown by analyses that map proficiency cut scores on state tests to NAEP-equivalent scores. As a result, proficiency rates should not be compared across states, except when using NAEP data, which are available for grades 4, 8, and 12.

This indicator may also measure students’ writing proficiency in states where a writing component is included within the English language arts assessment. As of 2019, one-third of states use either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or Smarter Balanced tests, both of which include a writing component.

We acknowledge limitations of test-based measures of proficiency, such as the potential for unintended consequences when used for accountability purposes (for example, teaching to the test, incentives for cheating) and limited accessibility of non-English testing for emerging multilingual students. Evidence also shows that when students are encouraged to perform better on standardized tests through a financial reward, their performance improves, sometimes substantially, suggesting that test scores may not fully capture students’ true academic proficiency. Despite these concerns, we recommend these indicators because of the demonstrated predictive value of measures of math and reading proficiency, and their potential to be used for intervention purposes.

Source frameworks

A total of 15 source frameworks reviewed for this report included math or reading proficiency in grade 3, grade 4, or both. Our definition aligns with the CORE Districts’ definition of academic performance in grades 3–8.


The framework's recommendations are based on syntheses of existing research. Please see the framework report for a list of works cited.

This website was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.