Only 33% of Philadelphia third graders read at grade level, and the school board wants to know what Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. is going to do about it.

On Thursday night, the school board launched a new approach to monitoring the Philadelphia School District and its schools chief, examining in great detail how city students fare on reading assessments and what might be needed to advance sluggish progress.

Late last year, the board adopted a goal of having 62% of third graders reading at grade level by 2026. Based on standardized tests administered this fall, however, the district is off track — with only 35% of children meeting reading standards.

Reading at third grade is significant; research shows that children who are proficient readers by the end of that year are likely to graduate from high school.

Broken down by subgroup, the numbers are stark for Black and Hispanic students (31% and 24% read at grade level, respectively). Also, 20% of English-language learners read proficiently; and 26% of special-education students read at grade level.

Twenty-one schools are on track based on these fall exams; 64 schools are nearly on track, and 63 schools are off track. The district did not release the names of the schools.

“We are very off track with certain groups of students,” board member Mallory Fix Lopez said. Fix Lopez led an intense, two-hour monitoring session at Thursday’s board meeting.

Hite, who has been Philadelphia’s superintendent since 2012, will be evaluated on the board’s “goals and guardrails,” including the reading goal examined Thursday. (The other goals are around district math performance and district graduates’ readiness for college and careers.)

Schools that are off track on reading, officials said, tend to have lower attendance, higher numbers of school violence, higher teacher turnover, and other complicating factors.

Why is the district struggling?

Hite and others said that the district’s literacy work “has not emphasized all the core aspects of becoming literate” and writing, and that its system of supports has been implemented unevenly at schools. Leaders also pinned the blame on teacher turnover and on inadequate professional development.

The board in the last few years has invested $17 million in an early literacy initiative that leaders said would move the needle on reading gains. Hite said that the program helped move students from the lowest achievement tier, below basic, into the basic category, and that now the charge was to move those students into proficiency.

Fix Lopez wondered if the investment was worth it, given the progress to date.

“As a board member,” she said, “I would say no.”

The school board said it will hold such monitoring exercises monthly and return frequently to points of concern. It also said it would shift spending priorities, putting more resources into helping struggling students and schools.

“We know that it is going to require something different for the students in these subgroups, it’s going to require more,” Hite said. That will mean trade-offs, the superintendent said.

Board President Joyce Wilkerson asked Hite how the district will adjust student experience, based on what the breakdown of reading achievement shows.

Hite said that the district’s work developing a culturally responsive curriculum will “address some of those low expectations that individuals have for certain groups of children.”

Also Thursday night, board members expressed approval for Hite’s school reopening plan unveiled Wednesday, which will send about 9,000 prekindergarten through second-grade students back to classrooms two days a week beginning Feb. 22. It’s the third time the district has attempted a reopening; students have been fully remote since March.

“I want to express my strong preference for the plan that you’ve laid out,” board member Lee Huang said.

“I trust the medical experts that we have advising us,” Fix Lopez said. City health officials have said they believe it’s safe for the district to bring back some elementary school children, with precautions in place from six feet distancing to increased cleaning.

But while board member Angela McIver said she appreciated the tough position Hite was in, she does not agree that students should come back in February.

“I cannot, in good conscience, support any reopening plan while witnessing cities all over the country whose hospitals are overwhelmed by a virus our country has failed to control,” McIver said. “I cannot support a reopening plan when mutations in the virus are making COVID far more contagious with not as much known about newer variants coming out of Brazil and South Africa.”

The board members did not need to vote on Hite’s reopening plan; they did so last summer.