Nearly 70 percent of Arkansas fourth-graders don’t read proficiently, but there are ways to fix the problem. According to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, nearly seven out of 10 state fourth-grade students don’t read as well as they should. And nearly eight out of 10 low-income students are behind grade level.

Rich Huddleston, executive director, Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families, says that is serious, because poor reading at that point can slow a child down for life. "Third and fourth grade really marks the time that students are making the shift from learning to read, to reading to learn," Huddleston says. Poor reading slows students down through their whole education, and that can hurt the state’s economy, Huddleston says. "It’s going to affect how you do during the rest of your time in school and your ability to earn higher incomes. And that also affects the Arkansas workforce - the state’s ability to compete for better-paying jobs," he points out. T

he Annie E. Casey report shows that reading levels are actually inching up, in Arkansas and around the country, says Elizabeth Burke Bryant, senior consultant, Casey Foundation Campaign for Grade-level Reading. "We are showing some success with fourth-grade reading proficiency improving, and now we have to finish the job and make sure that all children are reading proficiently by the end of third grade," Bryant says.

According to Huddleston, Arkansas had been a leader in early childhood education and at least started to make sure kids don’t forget their lessons over the summer. He says the state just needs to follow through. "Legislation passed a few years ago would have created a statewide system of quality after-school and summer programs, to help reduce summer learning loss," he noted. "But there has been no funding associated with that."

The good news is that quality pre-school, after-school and summer learning programs have been proven to help more kids read, he says, adding that focusing on attendance and parental involvement also helps close the gap.