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Report: W.Va. fourth-graders not reading proficiently

Chris Dorst
Amman Crowder (left), 9, a third-grader at West Side Elementary School, and his friend Rahmel Carroll, 6, a first-grader at West Side, read in the children's department at the Kanawha County Public Library on Capitol Street. A new report says many West Virginia students don't read well by the time they finish third grade, and many will continue to have reading problems in later years.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Seven in 10 students in West Virginia are not reading proficiently by the time they finish the third grade -- the age that many educators say is a crucial indicator of future learning.Of those students who struggle with reading, three out of four will remain below average readers in high school. That's because as they enter fourth grade, students switch from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," according to a report released Tuesday by West Virginia Kids Count, an organization that compiles a range of data on the wellbeing of West Virginia's children.According to standardized test data, 73 percent of fourth-graders are not reading at grade level in West Virginia, ranking the state 40th in the nation when it comes to reading proficiency.The data also shows a large gap between children from low-income families and those from moderate and high-income families. One in four children in West Virginia lives in poverty.About 83 percent of the state's fourth graders from low-income families are struggling to read, compared to 55 percent of students living with higher household incomes."We are failing our youngest children by not preparing them to be good readers and successful learners," said Margie Hale, executive director of Kids Count. "We can and must do better."In Kanawha County -- the state's largest school district -- nearly 52 percent of fourth-graders are not where they should be when it comes to reading, ranking the district 10th out of 55 counties when it comes to reading proficiency. Clay County's students had the highest reading scores in the state, with about 63 percent them reaching proficient levels.Danny Brown, assistant superintendent for Clay County Schools, said his district is aware of the importance of reading at a young age, and has pushed teachers to emphasize elementary reading skills for that reason."Our top priority is to teach kids to read. When I interview prospective teachers, I always ask them what the most critical skill is when students leave elementary school, and most of them tell me reading -- not all of them, but most. And that's the answer I'm looking for," Brown said. "I used to tell people that we teach six subjects: reading, reading, reading, math, math and writing. If they don't learn to read, it's just tough to learn past that point."
But it isn't easy in Clay County -- home to one of the poorest school districts in the state, with nearly all of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals."Sometimes it is a challenge, but in Clay County, we know we don't have a lot of resources as far as funds go and we know there are economic challenges here, but it is not seen as a crutch. It's simply something we know exists, and we expect kids to achieve at high levels," Brown said. "We're struggling with funding like a lot of small rural counties, and digging out of a deficit, but it's not a barrier that can't be overcome."In his State of the State address in February, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin pushed for extra focus on third-graders' reading skills, among other calls for education reform.The state Board of Education now requires all new teachers to pass an assessment that "guarantees they possess the necessary skills to teach reading," state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said.The Department of Education has assembled the "PreK-3 Collaborative Initiative" -- a comprehensive plan for early childhood education involving several different organizations.
"As part of the comprehensive plan, the group will design a pre-K to second grade reporting system to track students' progress in the early grades. The system will allow schools to identify struggling students and intervene prior to the third grade," Cordeiro said. "The West Virginia Department of Education, the Board of Education and several other community groups acknowledge that student literacy is of paramount importance."Further solutions suggested by West Virginia Kids Count include expanding the state's universal preschool program to include all three-year-olds and addressing chronic absences and summer learning loss.Only six of the state's 55 school districts had more than half of their students reading proficiently by the end of the third grade: Clay, Putnam, Pendleton, Ohio, Brooke and Hancock counties.The school district with the lowest percentage of fourth graders reading proficiently is Monroe County Schools, where 71.3 percent of students last school year scored poorly in the reading and language arts section of the WESTEST 2.Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-4814. 
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