A higher percentage of kindergartners achieved the target score on the state’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment this fall than last year.

However, the average score for all students in the state is 503, below the target score of 530. Of the 144 school districts in the state, only 20 of those had an average score of 530 or higher.

Statewide, the percentage of all students scoring kindergarten-ready has increased from 34.6 percent in 2014 to 36.9 percent in 2017, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

The test evaluates early literacy skills such as the ability to recognize letters and match letters to their sounds, in addition to the ability to recognize that print is read from left to right.

Nine of those 20 districts that reached the target score offer pre-K through the state’s Early Learning Collaborative program, which assists communities and districts in establishing high quality pre-K programs. The collaboratives were created by the Legislature through the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013 and have been nationally recognized for meeting all quality preschool standards.

The Legislature provided $3 million in the first three years for the Early Learning Collaboratives and then increased the amount to $4 million in 2016.

Currently, only about six percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in a collaborative. Roughly half the school districts didn’t offer any kind of pre-K last school year.

“To sum it up, our children come in, two out of three (children) not having those real solid foundational skills,” said Kim Benton, chief academic officer at the state education department. “The good news is thanks to the high quality instruction they’re receiving, things are getting better every year.”

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright has long championed expanding early childhood education in the state, and the department has requested $10 million for the collaboratives from the Legislature.

“High-quality early childhood education is not only the pathway to kindergarten readiness, but it has a positive impact on academic achievement throughout a child’s education,” Wright said. “Several studies have estimated that for every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education programs, the return on investment ranges from $7 to $12. Investment on the front end pays dividends on the back end of a child’s education.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.