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Mississippi is ramping up its literacy efforts this year to meet the demands of a state law barring social promotion of 3rd graders.
The stakes are high, with 3rd graders required to pass a reading test in order to continue to 4th grade, following Mississippi’s adoption of a law modeled off a similar setup in Florida.
The test currently requires 3rd graders to score above the lowest achievement level on the test to be promoted, though in 2018 that will change to require them to score above the two lowest achievement levels.
In 2015, the first year of the new law, 92 percent of 3rd graders passed. The 8 percent that were retained were given three tries at the test. This year, a higher percentage of students passed the test on the first try, and 92 percent passed the test according to the final results. Some school districts saw improvement from 2014-2015 while others continue to struggle.
Last school year, 74 literacy coaches were in 127 schools across the state training elementary school teachers in teaching literacy in a continued effort to ensure children have the necessary reading skills early in their education.
This school year, the number of coaches has been expanded to 83, and the Barksdale Reading Institute is providing help in an additional 20 schools.
Jackson Public School District, the second largest in the state, had three of the highest-scoring elementary schools last year. Each one is considered a “special program” school, or has arts, international baccalaureate (IB) and a Montessori program, all of which integrate literacy throughout the curriculum.
JPS also raised its overall pass score from 72 percent to 79.4 percent from 2015 to 2016, which Chief Academic Officer of Elementary Schools Michelle King credits to having reading interventionists in every elementary school in the district, along with lead teachers around the district who provide model lessons and guidance to other teachers.
“We’re really continuing to focus on that strong literacy block. We increased even last year from just a 90-minute literacy block to a 120-minute literacy block, so there’s more time being used for literacy and reading,” King explained.
She said the district is also implementing a specific phonics program to help younger students before they reach the 3rd grade.
Choctaw County School District was in the top 10 highest performing school districts across the state, and Superintendent Stewart Glen Beard said he plans to continue laying the foundation for literacy in pre-K through 2nd grade.
“We have a very rigorous … grading requirement for kindergarten through 2nd grade in which they have to score a certain level on their reading tests … before” going on to the next grade, Beard explained. “Those rigorous requirements we’ve found really translate on up to the 3rd grade.”
Beard said the district has been requiring an 80 or above in core classes for at least the past seven years.
“We found that without that, the reading gap really widens the older the students get,” Beard said.
D-rated Holmes County School District improved its pass rates from last year as well, and saw an extraordinary jump in one of its elementary schools. The overall district pass rate moved from 59 to 66 percent while Williams Sullivan Elementary in Durant more than doubled its 3rd graders’ pass rate from 48 percent to 87 percent.
Superintendent Angel Meeks said she credits the jump to “lots of hard work” on the part of the school’s former principal and 3rd grade teacher.
“Both of these ladies spent countless hours tutoring and intervening with third grade students,” Meeks said.
She credits the district increase to additional training for teachers on teaching literacy and interpreting literacy tests. In addition, the Mississippi Department of Education provided literacy coaches in three of the four elementary schools, and the Barksdale Reading Institute worked with students at Williams Sullivan Elementary.
Gov. Phil Bryant, an advocate of the third grade reading test and other education reform efforts, signed an executive order in June to create a task force that aims to improve early childhood literacy in public schools.
The task force is made up of teachers and employees of the Barksdale Reading Institute, the Institutions for Higher Learning, the Mississippi Department of Education and the governor’s office. The Barksdale Reading Institute was founded in 2000 by Sally and Jim Barksdale. Jim Barksdale serves on the board of Mississippi Today.
Michael Cormack with the Barksdale Reading Institute said it and the task force are also working with undergraduate programs.
“There is ongoing work of how we strengthen undergraduate education to ensure teachers are ready on day one,” Cormack said, noted groups are looking at improvements to licensure and program certification requirements in the state.
The recommendations from the task force will be released at the end of next month.