Fourth-grade students in Virginia, Maryland and the District have among the largest gaps in reading proficiency in the country when broken down by income level, according to a report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Virginia and Maryland were among nine states singled out for having particularly large disparities, based on an analysis of the 2013 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In Virginia, only 21 percent of fourth graders from low-income families were considered proficient in reading, compared to 56 percent of fourth graders from higher-income families. And in Maryland, 24 percent of fourth graders from low-income families were proficient, compared to 58 percent from higher income families.

The District, an entirely urban jurisdiction, had the nation’s largest gap with only a 13 percent proficiency rate for children from low-income families compared to 61 percent for those from wealthier families.

Reading proficiency in fourth grade is considered a crucial indicator of future academic success. Many recent policy initiatives have been targeted at improving reading skills by the end of third grade, since that is the year educators say students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Nationwide, only 20 percent of fourth graders from low-income families were proficient, compared to 51 percent of wealthier students.

Fewer high quality early learning opportunities, inferior schools, and family stress are among the reasons cited for the lagging performance by students living in poverty.

On average, fourth-grade reading performance has improved significantly in the past decade across the country, but better-off children made bigger gains, and the gap widened in almost every state.

“We want all of Virginia’s children to succeed in school,” said Virginia's new Secretary of Education Anne Holton in response to the report. “Our higher income students have achieved notable gains. We must focus our attention on making sure those gains are shared across all income groups.”

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