Nykia Watts carries books to read whenever she leaves her home in Landover.

Tamarra Chesley of the District writes original stories.

Adele Amchan, who has attended preschool near her home in Arlington since she was 2, computes arithmetic problems in her head.

Starting tomorrow and during the next two weeks, all three will enter first grade. But unlike first graders of decades ago, these 5-year-olds are already veterans of the classroom.

In increasing numbers, educators say, first graders come to school more experienced and better prepared academically than previous generations, partly because of educational television, increased enrollment in day care and a push for formal learning that has reached down to infancy.

"They have better backgrounds, they've been to day care centers. Their parents take them more places," noted Vivian Scofield, who has been teaching first grade since 1954. Thirty years ago, according to the Prince George's County teacher, "first graders came to school without any experience."

About 40,000 children will enter first grade in Washington area schools this fall. For most of them -- like Nykia, Tamarra and Adele -- it will be a continuation of schooling, not the beginning it once was. These children have long since crossed many of the barriers that once made first grade so formidable.

The schools they enter will be in some ways different even from those their older siblings began five years ago. Since the publication four years ago of "A Nation at Risk," a report prepared by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that cited "the rising tide of mediocrity" in American schools, public education has been scrutinized, discussed, held accountable, and, in some cases, improved to an almost unprecedented degree.

While most efforts at reform have focused on the high school level, elementary schools have been pressured to produce more competent students with measurable skills in mathematics, writing and reading.

In Virginia, state Superintendent S. John Davis has proposed that first graders be given standardized ability tests. Next spring, the state will begin testing sixth graders for competency in the three R's.

In addition to feeling the trickle-down effects of officially mandated reform, schools are responding to the wider experiences of many preschoolers and the demands of their parents by introducing higher level skills earlier and shifting to the primary grades lessons once taught in later years. At many schools, kindergarten, once the transitional year of socialized play, has become a time of learning to read and write.

"We're doing more in our kindergartens than we did even five years ago," said Judith Hoyer, early childhood coordinator for Prince George's County. Today's kindergartner studies phonics, practices handwriting and is introduced to reading, she said.

"Twenty years ago, you were teaching {first graders} arithmetic," recalled Kathleen Ford, a mathematics teacher at John Carroll Science and Math Elementary School in Prince George's County. "Now we're teaching math, problem solving and geometric skills, right from the beginning."

Maryland officials are also piloting half-day classes emphasizing language and prereading skills for 4-year-olds.

More than a decade ago, the District introduced prekindergarten classes for 3- and 4-year-olds, a move similar to federal early intervention programs designed to prepare socially and economically disadvantaged children for school. In recent years, the District has introduced computerized reading and writing programs in kindergarten.

Towana Chesley says her daughter Tammy learned to compose stories in the Write to Read program at Winston Educational Center, a public elementary school in Southeast Washington.

Many parents, reflecting an increasingly competitive culture, are anxious that their children be challenged and not fall behind in the great education race.

"I want Adele to be happy but pushed to achieve what she can," said her mother Susan Amchan, who admits to some apprehension as her daughter heads off to primary school. "She talks about wanting to be a doctor. I have high expectations for her."

As American parents demand more of schools and their young children, there are those who sound a note of caution.

"There is a great deal that children need to do besides reading," said David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University and author of the book "The Hurried Child."

"What we need to foster in the early grades is a motivation for learning, an enthusiasm for learning," he said. "The task for the early grades is not skills but developing lifelong attitudes toward learning."

In Prince George's County, Hoyer also points out that some of the advancement credited to young children is overstated. For example, a young child may know the alphabet, but in most cases it is a singsong recitation without real understanding of the letters and their use in language, he said.

"Children come to formal education having been more exposed. Exposure, however, doesn't mean mastery," Hoyer said.

"They may have been to a few exotic places and know that the sun is 93 million miles away, but still their knowledge is unsophisticated," said Becky Morris, a first grade teacher at MacArthur School in Alexandria.

Although children may have a better start educationally, things have not changed much emotionally over the years.

First graders still thrive on their teachers' attention, vying to show off new shoes or boast about a new box of crayons. And despite earlier years spent in day care or preschool, they are still enthusiastic about attending school, relishing assignments and often demanding homework.

The jockeying for praise and affection is keen, too. "They still want a lot of babying. They want you to hug and kiss them," said Scofield, extending her arms for a hug the way many of her students do as they enter her classroom.

Still, educators concede today's first graders have a new independence.

"They're accustomed to being without their parents," said Scofield, who also teaches at John Carroll Elementary. "I don't think I had anybody cry {for their parents} last year, not a soul."

Nykia, praised by her family for her reading skills and listening habits, is already being groomed for the legal profession. "We aren't joking. We're very serious about it," said Alice Alexander, her grandmother and legal guardian.

Tamarra says she wants to be a "mail lady" or a dentist, aspirations her mother accepts but does not push. "I just want {my three daughters} to be self-sufficient," she said.

With preschool and kindergarten behind her, Tamarra has taken on the job of tutoring her 3-year-old sister Andrea.

"I taught her her ABCs, her colors and how to say her numbers," Tamara boasted last week.

Ernest Boyer, chairman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is among the most recent of the education authorities looking at early education. Last year, the foundation completed a survey of 30 elementary schools in the United States, which will form the basis for a book to be called "The Early Years." The foundation has published "High School" and "College."

"There is a strong preoccupation with children getting a head start," Boyer said. "And certainly the basic knowledge that we used to think of as being the purview of first grade has been pushed down into preschool."

But, he added rather wistfully, "I went into first grade with a sense of awe . . . . That aura of a rite of passage has now broken down."