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Mississippi raises high-stakes reading bar for third graders

MGN Online

More than 35,000 Mississippi third graders sat down in front of computer this week to take reading tests, facing a state mandate to "level up" or not advance to fourth grade. But with the bar set higher this year, state and local officials expect more students will fail the initial test, even with efforts to improve teaching.

Posted: Apr 19, 2019 6:21 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — More than 35,000 Mississippi third graders sat down in front of computer this week to take reading tests, facing a state mandate to "level up" or not advance to fourth grade. But with the bar set higher this year, state and local officials expect more students will fail the initial test, even with efforts to improve teaching.

Mississippi is one of 16 states nationwide that demand third grade students pass a reading score threshold or flunk. Nevada and Michigan plan to impose such requirements in the next two years, and Alabama lawmakers are considering one.

The mandatory retention policy remains controversial nationwide. Experts agree students who flunk a grade are more likely to drop out. While third-grade reading policies typically call for intensive remedial work for students who are held back, one study found the boost helps for a while but eventually fades.

For students, parents and teachers, the high-stakes testing can bring butterflies, although Mississippi hasn't seen the organized pushback against testing seen in many other states. Bernardytte Robinson, a fifth grade math teacher at Key Elementary in Jackson, said her daughter Ayden Harris, a third grader at the same school, has been sweating the exam since school began in August.

"She said 'I don't want to fail, mom,'" Robinson said Ayden told her on Monday, the first day of testing. "I said 'You're not going to fail.' I said 'You've got this.'"

When the Magnolia State implemented its requirement in 2015, students only had to reach the second, or basic, level on a state test scored in five tiers. This year, the state is raising the bar, saying students must reach the third level. That's still one step short of proficiency, but state Superintendent Carey Wright and others say it's important to raise expectations.

"We needed to do this, and we need to do this in increments, because we wanted to make sure that our students began moving more toward the proficient level and being more prepared for fourth grade," said Kymona Burk, the state literacy director.

The Republican policymakers who adopted Mississippi's plan from Florida support it, pointing to improvements in performance on a nationwide test. Mississippi is paying for literacy coaches to help improve instruction in 182 of 420 schools statewide with a third grade. The state has also provided training on teaching reading to 13,000 people, and provides extra money for summer schools for struggling readers.

Last year, 93% of Mississippi students passed at the basic level on their first attempt, but only 75% reached the third level. Burk said the share of students scoring three or above has been increasing, but she predicts only about 80% will pass. Schools will get scores in early May and students retest in mid-May. A second retest comes after summer school. About 3% of students were allowed to advance last year without passing for various reasons.

Mississippi has long flunked the largest proportion of young students nationwide, often students from poor households who enroll lacking groundwork for academics. Last year, Mississippi held back 9% of kindergartners, 8% of first graders and 6% of second graders.

Harvard University education Professor Martin West studied Florida, where then-Gov. Jeb Bush pioneered the third grade policy. The policy has been promoted in Mississippi and other states by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Bush chairs. West said his study finds students held back because of reading problems aren't any more or less likely to drop out, compared to students who just barely pass. He said students who flunk and get intensive help in Florida get an academic boost for several years, but said it fades out.

Overall, West said he can't prove third-grade retention policies work. He said states that appear successful "have used the requirement not primarily as a way to retain more students, but as a focal point to concentrate educators' attention on improving literacy in early grades."

Last year, all students at A.W. James Elementary in Drew passed on the first try, but Principal Barbara Akon isn't so sure all her 39 third graders will clear the bar this time. Despite an average class size of 13 and intensive focus, Akon said pretests showed six students in danger of failing. She said the Mississippi Delta school set a pass-rate goal of 90%, or 35 students.

"We want 100%, but this being the first time they've had to score this high, we have some concerns," Akon said.

Outcomes could be worse elsewhere. Adrian Hammitte, interim superintendent in Jefferson County, said he overhauled reading instruction when he took over this year, with help from outside consultants. But only 45% of Jefferson County's third graders scored three or above last year, and 16% flunked third grade.

"With the new score needed, that level three, and how we performed last year, I'm a little nervous," Hammitte said of his 110 students. "I feel good about what we put in place. Now we just wait and see."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 513622

Reported Deaths: 10264
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34892556
DeSoto33234432
Hinds32638641
Jackson24854389
Rankin22507403
Lee16337242
Madison14922283
Jones14113247
Forrest13766259
Lauderdale12270324
Lowndes11305193
Lamar10659140
Pearl River9719244
Lafayette8846143
Hancock7836132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7210138
Monroe7010179
Pontotoc6990109
Warren6863178
Panola6759134
Neshoba6730210
Marshall6678141
Bolivar6445151
Union638297
Pike5928156
Alcorn5879107
Lincoln5530136
George510180
Prentiss503884
Tippah491482
Itawamba4844107
Scott477899
Adams4768125
Tate4756116
Leflore4729144
Copiah456495
Yazoo456491
Simpson4546117
Wayne443072
Covington433695
Sunflower4299106
Marion4277112
Coahoma4237109
Leake413990
Newton395781
Tishomingo383593
Grenada3777109
Stone365866
Jasper340666
Attala338290
Winston317892
Chickasaw315467
Clay312278
Clarke301195
Calhoun285049
Holmes271889
Smith269052
Yalobusha243947
Tallahatchie231553
Greene224749
Walthall221666
Lawrence218740
Perry213456
Amite209857
Webster205348
Noxubee188742
Montgomery181657
Carroll174541
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152939
Kemper145041
Choctaw136727
Claiborne134338
Humphreys131239
Franklin125529
Quitman107628
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96934
Sharkey65221
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 845284

Reported Deaths: 16116
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1161552006
Mobile742111380
Madison53307732
Shelby38338368
Baldwin38085589
Tuscaloosa36022641
Montgomery34492781
Lee25562263
Calhoun22586518
Morgan22459406
Etowah20018517
Marshall18782316
Houston17731425
St. Clair16884358
Limestone16148218
Cullman16054303
Elmore15904294
Lauderdale14989306
Talladega14196299
DeKalb12972269
Walker12030380
Blount10717192
Autauga10517157
Jackson10162194
Coffee9417192
Colbert9342208
Dale9020191
Tallapoosa7256201
Russell708165
Chilton7018170
Escambia6957143
Covington6933195
Franklin6342108
Chambers5784142
Marion5406130
Dallas5285209
Pike5119109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4780110
Geneva4642136
Bibb434094
Barbour369580
Butler3435100
Marengo342493
Monroe337266
Randolph334867
Pickens333188
Fayette330385
Henry320666
Hale318389
Cherokee317863
Crenshaw260477
Washington257052
Cleburne254460
Lamar251453
Clay250869
Macon244864
Conecuh192862
Coosa185047
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152645
Perry141840
Sumter139241
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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