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Originally published Monday, May 31, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Early warning on reading

Too many children are reaching fourth-grade without being able to read proficiently, a problem that exacerbates academic problems, high-school dropout rates and poverty.

POLICYMAKERS and educators are right to view news that two out of three U.S. fourth-graders are not proficient in reading as a clarion call.

Reading is a fundamental skill and gateway to academic achievement.

Third grade is a pivotal benchmark because if education is doing its job, children learn to read until age 9, then they read to learn. Students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade will have difficulty performing well in math, science and other subjects. Poor reading is a strong predictor of who will drop out of high school.

It can also be a predictor of poverty and diminished dreams.

A McKinsey & Company study estimated the U.S. gross domestic product in 2008 would have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher if American students matched the academic achievement levels of higher-performing nations.

Education reform's push for rigor and higher academic achievement depends on a strong foundation in basic skills, such as reading.

A Kids Count special report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation offers a finely sifted analysis of reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Most states, including Washington, rank in the basic, rather than proficient, reading-skills category. About a third of Washington state students read at or above the proficient level.

Everyone knows what works and thus Washington has supported early-learning and full-day kindergarten as building blocks to stronger reading skills. Early-grade reading initiatives and support for higher grades are on the rise in most school districts.

More is needed. A renewed emphasis on early acquisition of reading skills ought to coincide with Congress' move to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind federal law.

Locally, schools, libraries and community programs offer strong opportunities for expanding access to language-rich summer programs so reading skills do not rust during summer.

Bold educational efforts built around reading are needed immediately.

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