CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Seven in 10 students in West Virginia are not reading proficiently by the time they finish the third grade -- the age that many educators say is a crucial indicator of future learning.
Of those students who struggle with reading, three out of four will remain below average readers in high school. That's because as they enter fourth grade, students switch from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," according to a report released Tuesday by West Virginia Kids Count, an organization that compiles a range of data on the wellbeing of West Virginia's children.
According to standardized test data, 73 percent of fourth-graders are not reading at grade level in West Virginia, ranking the state 40th in the nation when it comes to reading proficiency.
The data also shows a large gap between children from low-income families and those from moderate and high-income families. One in four children in West Virginia lives in poverty.
About 83 percent of the state's fourth graders from low-income families are struggling to read, compared to 55 percent of students living with higher household incomes.
"We are failing our youngest children by not preparing them to be good readers and successful learners," said Margie Hale, executive director of Kids Count. "We can and must do better."
In Kanawha County -- the state's largest school district -- nearly 52 percent of fourth-graders are not where they should be when it comes to reading, ranking the district 10th out of 55 counties when it comes to reading proficiency.
Clay County's students had the highest reading scores in the state, with about 63 percent them reaching proficient levels.
Danny Brown, assistant superintendent for Clay County Schools, said his district is aware of the importance of reading at a young age, and has pushed teachers to emphasize elementary reading skills for that reason.
"Our top priority is to teach kids to read. When I interview prospective teachers, I always ask them what the most critical skill is when students leave elementary school, and most of them tell me reading -- not all of them, but most. And that's the answer I'm looking for," Brown said. "I used to tell people that we teach six subjects: reading, reading, reading, math, math and writing. If they don't learn to read, it's just tough to learn past that point."
But it isn't easy in Clay County -- home to one of the poorest school districts in the state, with nearly all of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.