Learning starts with the basics, and there's nothing more basic than reading.
A continued focus on this critical element is welcome and warranted. Yes, there is much to applaud in the 2011 results for the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, the state's end-of-year accountability test given to students in grades three through eight.
The percentage of Beaufort County School District students who met or exceeded standards on the test increased across all subject areas, and county pass rates are now higher than state pass rates in writing, English and math.
But as Superintendent Valerie Truesdale noted, reading weakness is a problem.
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The relatively large percentages of students not meeting standards in English language arts (reading and research) and social studies are disturbing.
In language arts, they ranged from 20.2 percent for fifth-graders to 29.5 percent for seventh-graders.
In social studies, they ranged from 23 percent for fourth-graders to 37 percent for seventh-graders.
More disturbing is that the percentage of students not meeting standards increases as the students get older, with only a few exceptions.
The percentages of students not meeting standards also get bigger when you break down the scores by race, ethnicity and income levels (students qualifying for subsidized meals).
For example, 49.6 percent of seventh-graders from low-income families failed to meet standards for social studies, compared with 37 percent overall.
This is not just a Beaufort County problem. Statewide, the percentage of students not meeting standards in language arts ranged from 20 percent for third-graders to 32.2 percent for eighth-graders. In social studies, the percentages not meeting standards ranged from 22.9 percent for fourth-graders to 36.6 percent for seventh-graders.
Again, the percentage of students not meeting standards generally went higher as the students got older.
Truesdale said Beaufort County's social studies scores show students struggling to understand difficult material and to connect causes and effects.
"We're doing better in reading, but the deep comprehension -- we've got to work on it," she said. "One of the biggest strategies we have this year is that our social studies teachers are going to be focused on teaching reading and writing in social studies."
At the state level, a special task force has been created to address the reading problem.
The 25-member panel is to meet this fall and make recommendations in January. The group is charged with defining the focus and setting priorities to improve reading achievement for all students, Neil Robinson, chairman of the state Education Oversight Committee, wrote in a recent column.
The panel is to look at factors that contribute to or impede reading achievement, including physical health, language development and the quality of instruction in schools.
Robinson points to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It found that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade don't graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than for proficient readers.
That's a scary, but unsurprising finding.
Improving reading comprehension is baseline work that must be done, and it must include figuring out how to prevent our children from losing ground as they get older, when they need this critical skill more than ever.