An Urban Myth That Should Be True

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U.S. prison planners don't use local third-grade reading scores to predict future inmate populations. But maybe they should.


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During a panel discussion with the current mayors of Los Angeles, Houston and New Orleans at the Aspen Ideas Festival Monday, NPR's Michele Norris offered a chilling factoid about the importance of third-grade reading comprehension. "The prison industrial complex will look at the test scores of a city's third grade population," she said. "If the test grades are low they know that they'll have to start building a prison." It was a moving notion that Norris said "haunts" her to this day; Unfortunately, it's not actually true.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage
Norris is hardly the first to propagate this idea. After hearing it across a range of conferences and blog posts, The Oregonian's Bill Graves investigated and refuted the anecdote in 2010. "This is an urban myth," California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton told Graves in an e-mail. "A few weeks ago I contacted nearly every department of corrections in the nation. I heard back from 25 states saying they do not use elementary reading levels to plan for future prison beds. We have no idea where this originated from." Earlier this year, Politifact also looked into the anecdote and concluded that it seems to be "nothing more than an Internet rumor."

It turns out, planners have their own methods of predicting the need for future prisons. Max Williams, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, told Graves that planners "look at complicated formulas that are based on arrest rates and demographic data, such as the number of 18-to-28-year-old men in the state." 

However, in Norris's defense, reviewing third-grade reading scores wouldn't be a terrible idea. Consider recent scholarship on the importance of reading comprehension in the third grade. 

In an Education Week article last year, the magazine highlighted a report by sociology professor Donald Hernandez who compared reading scores and graduation rates of almost 4,000 students. "A student who can't read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer," read the report.

Couple that with a study comparing dropout rates and incarceration rates in The New York Times, and one could draw a strong connection. The study by researchers at Northeastern University used a range of census data to find that "about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates." 

So while the idea that prison planners are reading your children's test scores is false, maybe it shouldn't be.


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John Hudson

John Hudson is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He is a former staff writer for Radio GIPA in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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