Perhaps the most critical section of the public school improvement bill signed into law recently by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is the mandate to improve reading skills among West Virginia students.

Tomblin’s goal in proposing the measure was to ensure that public school students are able to read at grade level by the time they reach third grade.

Other states, including Ohio, have set similar benchmarks.

Reading really is fundamental, as has been said. Without good reading skills, students lag behind their peers in other subjects. Sometimes they never catch up.

On the whole, West Virginia students do not perform well in comparison to their peers in other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. NAEP is the only standardized test given in all states and the District of Columbia.

During the last round of NAEP testing, West Virginia fourth-graders who took the examination scored an average of 214 points in reading. Just six states and the District of Columbia scored worse.

By eighth grade, the picture was even grimmer on the NAEP reading test. Average scores were lower than West Virginia’s in only three states and the District of Columbia.

Clearly, remedying the problem needs to start early. And Tomblin, to his credit, recognizes that. Also included in his education reform package is an expansion of early childhood education in West Virginia.

Again, in some ways the early childhood and third grade reading components of the new reform law are its most important provisions. They should be implemented as soon as possible – within months, not years.

Tomblin and legislators should monitor progress closely. If it is not adequate – and that means tremendous improvement – additional steps should be taken.