CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fewer than three out of 10 students in West Virginia are proficient readers by the time they leave third grade.
That's according to figures released Monday by West Virginia Kids Count, a child advocacy group, based on data from the National Assessment of Education Progress culled from standardized test scores for 2011. According to those figures, 73 percent of West Virginia students aren't considered "proficient" readers by the end of third grade.
That's worse than the national average, which is 68 percent of students not proficient. In Kanawha County the numbers are better: more than 51 percent of students aren't proficient readers by the time they finish third grade.
The third grade reading benchmark is a well-known one in the education community. Research shows that kids who can't read on grade level by the third grade will only fall further behind their peers as they progress through the school system: three out of four of those students will continue to be poor readers throughout high school and one in six won't graduate.
"If you can't read by the end of the third grade then you can't read to learn throughout the rest of your education," said Margie Hale, executive director for Kids Count. "This puts the child at a horrible disadvantage and that can perpetuate itself through the years. We want kids to be able to read because that equates to total wellness."
The problem is substantially more pronounced in children from low-income homes. Around 83 percent of fourth grade students from low-income homes test below proficient in West Virginia, but 55 percent of fourth graders from moderate- or high-income homes aren't proficient in reading.
There's also disparity among West Virginia's 55 counties: the worst off is Monroe County, where more than 71 percent of fourth grade students aren't proficient readers. The best is Clay, where less than 37 percent aren't proficient.
Kids Count suggested a number of solutions, including expansion of the state's public preschool program — which is already open to all 4-year-olds in the state — to include 3-year-olds and "developing an early care and education system that aligns programs for children from through third grade to improve reading proficiency."
The report also suggests that state officials develop a literacy plan to improve reading in the fourth grade, and says stakeholders should encourage "community-wide action plans."
In a release, the state Department of Education said that it agrees that student literacy is "of paramount importance" and pointed to action the board has taken in recent months to improve student literacy.
In his State-of-the-State address last year Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin stressed the importance of third grade reading, and urged the Department of Education to address the issue. Since then, the department has worked on partnerships with state colleges and universities to raise standards for education professionals — the state now requires all new teachers to pass an assessment aimed at ensuring they are qualified to teach reading.
The state's Office of Early Learning is also working to develop a comprehensive plan for early childhood education, including a streamlined system to track student progress in the early grades.
Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.ma...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.