PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Teaching a child to read proficiently by third grade: educators call it the most essential task of a school district, for without that skill, young students fall hopelessly behind.

“You’re four times less likely to graduate if you’re not reading at grade level by third grade,” said James Fogarty of the watchdog group A+ Schools.

“Your life outcomes are much worse if you’re not reading at grade level by third grade.”

But even after spending millions and millions on EdTech or educational technology programs, the number of Pittsburgh Public School third graders who can’t read is rising sharply.

According to state test results obtained by KDKA, the percentage of students who scored below basic reading levels jumped last year from 11.7 to 17.9 percent — an increase of more than 6 percent.

And among African-American third graders, the percentages are even more alarming — 62 percent cannot read proficiently.

Fogarty calls that a crisis.

“If the vast majority of kids in our schools aren’t reading at grade level by third grade, it is a crisis,” he said.

Almost three years ago a teacher advisory committee recommended against an elementary reading program called ReadyGen, but Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet and the district purchased it anyway from Pearson Education for $4.4 million.

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Teachers KDKA’s Andy Sheehan has spoken with say the program lacks a foundation in phonics and needs to be abandoned.

“I think it’s time to go back to those who raised those concerns and work together with them to figure out, ‘okay staff, you thought this was going to be a problem, it’s looking like it might be. What can we do to solve it?'” Fogarty told Andy Sheehan.

The board will meet to discuss the dismal numbers, but Board President Lynda Wrenn tells Andy Sheehan the district needs to hire more reading specialists.

“We need to make investments in this critical support area for our struggling students, not in shiny new EdTech contracts,” she said.

Hamlet responded and said that the district actually saw improvements on the 8 of 14 PSSA exams for English, math and science.

He does say district results on the Keystone Exams declined after two years of steady performance.