More than 65% of Kentucky’s fourth-graders are less than proficient in reading, and 71% of eighth-graders are less than proficient in math, according to 2018 data released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said he’s concerned kids could fall even further behind because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Given the upheaval caused by the public-health crisis, he thinks the state should be placing less emphasis on standardized testing, and making more effort toward helping school districts address children’s basic needs, such as hunger and mental health.

“That type of regression is going to be accelerated with more vulnerable children,” Brooks said. “We need a really important policy decision — which is, can we free teachers and principals, and superintendents, to be kid-centric, not accountability-centric?”

He noted that kids and their families need continued investment in programs that prevent child abuse and neglect as part of state budget COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Brooks added that communities of color have faced historical and ongoing discrimination in housing and employment. As a result, Black and Hispanic children in the Commonwealth are more likely to live in poverty than white children.

He pointed to the close correlation between living in poverty and academic performance.

“The academic measurements around fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math proficiency shows a racial disparity on those measures,” he stated. “Surely, no one thinks that the non-traditional learning approach is not going to disproportionately impact kids of color and certain ZIP codes.”

Brooks said he’s convinced that, in order to reduce disparate outcomes among children of color, state agencies should begin to systematically collect, analyze and report data by race and ethnicity.