First, you learn to read. Then, you read to learn.

If you fail that first step, there is no second step.

One state, Florida, has had at least a modicum of success in increasing the number of students proficient in reading and did so without exponentially increasing spending.

In 1999, Florida instituted secondary education reform, including performance-based pay for teachers, grading schools, annual tests and, most importantly, curbing social promotion. Florida third-grade students must pass the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test before being promoted to the fourth grade.

In 1998, 47 percent of Florida’s fourth graders were basically illiterate, scoring “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. By 2013 that figure has fallen to 25 percent — down 22 points and well below the national rate of 33 percent.

Simple enough, if a child can’t read, he or she doesn’t advance to the fourth grade.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed a similar plan to the 2011 Legislature, touting Florida’s success, but lawmakers largely ignored it. Another effort in the 2013 Legislature met a similar fate.

Meanwhile, in 1998, 49 percent of Nevada fourth graders, according to the NAEP test scores, were illiterate. The state education system, despite ever increasing funding, had managed to cut that figure to only 39 percent by 2013. Only 27 percent of Nevada fourth graders are proficient or advanced in reading skills, well below the national rate of 34 percent.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush observed, “While preparing kids for college and careers starts on the first day of kindergarten, the first good indicator of their chances for success may come in fourth grade. That is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. …

“Yet failure does not have to be our destiny,” Bush wrote. “Florida’s experience in reform during the last decade gives us the road map to avoid this slow-moving economic calamity.”

This was about the same time Sandoval was taking office. One of his first acts was a proclamation to encourage reading proficiency in the elementary grades.

“WHEREAS,” read the third paragraph of Sandoval’s proclamation, “developing reading skills at an early age elicits skills that enable a student to evaluate, analyze, and integrate and interpret texts of various subject matters …”

We are now three decades removed from “A Nation at Risk,” a report by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The report sounded a jeremiad: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

The report set off a flurry of education reforms, few of which have shown any success.

Whatever failings our education system may have, there are ways to determine whether a child can read proficiently. One key to improving reading skills is to stop promoting to higher grades children who can’t read. Doing so is a disservice to the child.

Gov. Sandoval says he will try again in 2015 to push a plan he calls “Read by Three,” the third grade. We fully support this effort. — TM

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