Children need visual skills to excel in the classroom.

In May, 9,000 Mississippi third-graders – a quarter of those in the state – learned they’re at risk of being held back in school after failing to pass the “third grade reading gate” on their first attempt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is with the students’ language skills.

“If a child has problems with tracking or focusing or fusing … then absolutely they may not enjoy reading,” Optometrist Megan Lott said. “It may be difficult. It may be something that they tried to avoid. They may not want to pursue a higher education or a profession that may require reading.”

Because of the effect poor vision can have on children’s reading ability, the Mississippi Optometric Association and the Mississippi Vision Association are offering free eye exams to uninsured children who were unable to pass the test.

Parents with eligible children can visit the Mississippi Optometric Association website to find participating doctors in their area.

Educators and health officials are becoming more aware of the links between poor vision and classroom performance.

“We know that vision is a greater predictor of academic success than socioeconomic status. And as citizens of Mississippi we have a vested interest in making sure all of our students have the tools and the opportunity to succeed at their highest abilities,” Mississippi Optometric Association president and optometrist Amy Crigler said in a news release.

About 88 percent of students who took part in these free exams in the program’s first year needed glasses or other forms of vision correction, according to Lott, who is a participating optometrist.

The organizations are also providing glasses free of charge to students in need following the eye exams, the release stated.

Although schools oftentimes provide free vision screening for students, the American Optometry Association calls these exams as ‘woefully inadequate’, as the screenings typically only assess visual distance acuity. The association says on its website that the school “screenings can uncover some vision problems, but they can miss more than they find.”

Children need the following visual skills to read and learn effectively, according to Versant Health, a vision managed care company:

• Visual acuity: describes the ability of a child to see clearly when reading a book up close, viewing chalkboard at a distance and viewing a computer at an intermediate distance.

• Eye focusing: refers to the ability to accurately and quickly keep clear vision as object distances change. For instance, when looking at the chalkboard and changing to a paper on the desk quickly back and forth.

• Eye tracking: describes the ability to maintain eyes on target when looking from one object to another. For example, when moving eyes while reading a printed page or keeping an eye at a moving object like a ball.

• Eye teaming: ability to use both eyes and coordinate when moving them along a page, and judging distances in sports or seeing classwork depth.

• Eye hand coordination: ability to visually monitor and direct hands when hitting a ball or drawing pictures.

• Visual perception: ability to organize images on a page into words, letters and ideas, understand and remember.

The American Optometry Association recommends that parents seek out comprehensive eye exams for their children if they show symptoms of vision problems, which could include frequent eye rubbing/blinking, a short attention span, avoiding reading or other close activities, frequent headaches, covering one eye, tilting their head to one side, holding reading materials close to their face, an eye moving in or out, double vision, losing place when reading and difficulty remembering what they read.

The free eye exam program is in its fifth year.

“What’s remarkable about this program is that it was started by optometrists who saw a need for this intervention in these students that were struggling because there’s such a strong link between vision and learning in the classroom,” Lott said.

The Mississippi Department of Education said that about 3,000 more children passed the reading test on the their second attempt. Students can retest through July 12.

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Grace Marion is an editorial intern for Mississippi Today studying journalism and Spanish at the University of Mississippi. Grace has had bylines in PBS Newshour, the Playwickian, the Bucks County Courier Times, Howler literary magazine, Kaaterskills Basin Literary Magazine, the Write Launch, the Daily Mississippian and Women’s E-News. She was the 2019 recipient of the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation First Amendment Defense Award and a 2018 recipient of the Stamps Foundation scholarship at the University of Mississippi.