In this file photo, reading coach Lakisha Watkins practices word sounds and spelling with third-graders at Goodloe Elementary School in Canton. Advocates say investing more in the state’s public schools could help grow a state-funded reading coach program.

A quarter of Mississippi third-graders are at risk of being held back if they don’t pass the “third grade reading gate” this summer.

The Mississippi Department of Education released initial results of the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program in English Language Arts on Wednesday. In total, 74.5 percent of students passed the exam on the first try compared to 93.2 percent last year.

The dip is likely due to the fact that students had a higher bar to pass this year.

The Mississippi Legislature created the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013, and it requires all third-graders to pass a reading test to determine whether they’re ready to move up to the fourth grade.

In previous years, students needed to score two or higher on a five-level achievement scale. Students can earn either a minimal (1), basic (2), pass (3), proficient (4) or advanced (5) score. This year, students had to earn a three or higher and 74.5 percent of students hit that mark, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. The 8,941 students who did not pass on their first try have two more attempts over the summer.

“I think we have to hold the bar high — children’s lives depend on this,” state Superintendent Carey Wright said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “We have to set a high bar to ensure that children are going to reach it.”

This year’s pass rate is on trend with last year’s scores; in the 2017-18 school year, 73.8 percent of students scored a three or higher for the first try.

Last year, when the bar to pass was still a score of two or higher, 487 of the 2,560 students who didn’t pass the test initially passed on a retry, according to a report from the department.

The report said 1,398 students failed their retests. Several students who failed were promoted to fourth grade anyway due to a “good cause exemption” which includes reasons like limited English proficiency, students with disabilities, and students receiving intensive remediation. Ultimately 517 of those children who failed the retests were held back because they did not meet promotion criteria, according to Mississippi Today’s analysis of the report.

“Literacy must remain a major focus in pre-K through third grade to help students build the foundational reading skills they need to be successful throughout school,” Wright said. “As we raise expectations for students, we must do all that we can to help them meet higher academic standards.”

The department of education said it has assigned 80 literacy coaches to 182 schools across the state where students struggle with reading, and in June will announce which districts will receive grants to run summer reading camps.

Students had the opportunity to retest May 13-17, and June 24 through July 12, according to the department.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.