The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 1, 2013

Kids Count says 7 in 10 West Virginia kids reading badly

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — More than seven in 10 West Virginia students (73 percent) are not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade, according to results of a study conducted by National Assessment of Educational Process.

The same study showed that 68 percent of American third-graders are not reading proficiently.

“We are failing our youngest children by not preparing them to be good readers and successful learners,” said Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia KIDS COUNT, a group that studies the well-being of state children and builds advocacy alliances for children. “We can and must do better.”

Until third grade, kids are “learning to read,” said Hale.

From fourth grade on, though, kids are “reading to learn.” A poor reader will have trouble acquiring new information at school.

Hale added that three-fourths of the students who score poorly in lower grades will remain poor readers throughout high school, and one in six won’t graduate.

Among southern West Virginia counties, Raleigh County had the highest number of proficient readers at 49 percent, but that still placed fewer than half of the students at the benchmark, according to the NAEP report.

Clay County showed the highest number of proficient readers (63 percent), and Monroe scored the lowest (29 percent).

Results for the southern counties of Wyoming (48 percent), Nicholas (47 percent), Greenbrier (47 percent), Pocahontas (44 percent) and Summers (43 percent) showed that fewer than half of third-grade students in those counties could read proficiently.

In Fayette, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of students failed to meet the standard.

In only six of the state’s 55 counties were more than half of the students reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

In Raleigh County, the Read to Succeed Task Force is the school system’s answer to proficiency rates.

Superintendent Jim Brown said he and educators in Raleigh began addressing the proficiency rates of students during the 2012-2013 academic year by forming the Read To Succeed Task Force —  a team of principals, teachers, Title I intervention specialists and academic coaches who review data and classroom practices and delivery models of reading instruction.

“We are doing an extensive review and then identifying strategies to support our teachers and to increase proficiency in reading in all of our students,” said Brown.

Brown pointed out that a child from a low-income family may face a special challenge when starting school because of a limited vocabulary.

“There are a certain number of words a child should come to school with as part of their normal vocabulary,” said Brown. “Children who live in poverty are already coming to us with a deficit.

“But our responsibility is to meet students where they are, and that’s one of the challenges our task force is looking at, in how we provide that instruction for those students.”

Hale reported that the low proficiency rates among state fourth-graders are a reflection of the state’s demographics.

The top risk factors for being a poor fourth-grade reader are having a mother with a lower education level, problems at birth, low family income, lack of high-quality pre-school programs and poor nutrition.

In West Virginia, one in five mothers doesn’t have a high school education, one in 10 babies is low birth weight, one in four kids lives in poverty, only one in five pre-schoolers is enrolled in a pre-school program, and one-quarter of state households are “food insecure,” according to Hale.

Hale recommended expanding the state’s pre-kindergarten program to include both 3- and 4-year-olds.

“We should be focusing on the early years, from birth through age 3, when the building blocks of literacy are being laid and where we can get the highest possible return on our investment,” said Hale.

Hale reported that possible solutions include the development of an early care and education system that aligns programs for children from birth through third grade, expanding the state’s universal pre-Kindergarten program to include all 3-year-olds, development of a comprehensive literacy plan designed to improve fourth-grade reading, and creating and implementing solutions for chronic absence and summer learning loss.

Stephen Smith, executive director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Family Coalition, said recently that high-quality daycare programs can play a role in improving education levels and delivers “$7 of benefits for every one dollar we invest.”

“It prepares kids for jobs and education in the long run,” said Smith. “It makes sense that the more good we can do for a kid when their little brains are developing, the better they will be in the long run.

“That’s not just a guess,” he added. “That’s been proven by study after study after study, that kids who are in high-quality daycare get enrichment ... and those kids become more likely to succeed in school and less likely to get in trouble with the law.”

Smith said daycare also helps children by raising family income levels.

“It’s equally important for the whole family as a way to allow and enable the parents to work and advance in their own careers,” he said.

The NAEP report was based on the 2011-2012 WESTEST scores of state fourth-graders.

Internationally, American students were ranked 17th in a 2009 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, scoring “average” in reading and science and slightly below average in math.

Students in the Chinese city of Shanghai placed first, followed by South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore, according to the same report.

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com