CHARLESTON (AP) - More than seven in 10 West Virginia children can't read proficiently by the end of third grade, and West Virginia Kids Count said Tuesday the odds are slim they'll ever catch up.
A new report shows 73 percent of children are failing to meet the standards. That's 5 percentage points worse than the national average.
The data shows the counties with the highest proficiency levels were Clay and Putnam, where more than 60 percent of the children were reading at grade. Pendleton County came next, with 58 percent reading at grade, followed by Ohio County (55 percent), Brooke County (53 percent), and Hancock County (50 percent). Those six counties were the only in the state with more than 50 percent reading at grade level.
Other local counties fared worse. In Wetzel County, 45 percent of children were reading at grade, while Tyler County had 42 percent. Marshall County (39 percent) was one of 18 counties in the state with less than 40 percent of students reading at grade.
The worst-performing counties were Monroe, Hardy and Grant, where fewer than three in 10 students could read at grade level.
Kids Count Executive Director Margie Hale says three-fourths of children who aren't proficient readers by the third grade will remain poor readers throughout high school, and one in six won't graduate.
West Virginia is failing its youngest children and must do better, she said.
"We should be focusing on the early years, from birth through age three, when the building blocks of literacy are being laid and where we can get the highest possible return on our investment," Hale said.
Third-grade reading scores are considered important because at that age, children are still learning to read. By fourth grade, Hale said, they are "reading to learn," and fourth-graders who can't read well by then are unlikely to ever catch up.
Children who can't read at grade level typically have one or more risk factors, including poor nutrition, low family income, a mother who doesn't have a high school degree and lack of good pre-school programs.
The report is based on the results of the 2011-12 WESTest, which measures reading and language arts proficiency.