SSIP Literacy Coach Shameka Woods teaches in Jefferson County on June 17, 2019.

FAYETTE — Shameka Woods’ classroom was buzzing on a recent Monday morning, where eleven students sat at their desks and sounded out a reading passage about bees, ants and termites.

The students were working through a handout to answer reading comprehension questions. When the students got tripped up over a question that required them to use the text to determine what makes the insects similar, Woods walked them through it.

“OK, what did we say the word similar means?” she asked.

A student raised his hand and offered a tentative answer. “Alike?”

“OK. So we want to know how worker ants and worker bees are similar. So where do I go in my passage to find this answer? What subheading?”

A student shouted out a reply, but quickly trailed off because he wasn’t reading from the paper.

“You’re guessing, Justin!” Woods said. “Look at the passage.”

Woods is one of dozens of literacy coaches working in classrooms across the state as thousands of third-grade students prepare for their final chance at passing a critical reading exam. Should they fail, the possibility looms heavy that they’ll have to repeat the grade.

Students prepare for the ‘third grade reading gate’ in the Jefferson County School District on June 17, 2019.

Mississippi Today visited three school districts – Jefferson County, Clarksdale Municipal, and Coahoma County – and spoke with state literacy experts to better understand what barriers students and school districts face in trying to pass the so called third-grade gate exam.

In May, the Mississippi Department of Education announced 8,941 students failed the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program in English Language Arts assessment, known casually as the “third-grade gate.”

The test is a key part of the Literacy Based Promotion Act, which requires all third-graders to pass a reading test to determine whether they are ready to move on to the fourth grade. The bar to pass was higher this year. Students must earn a three or higher out of a five point scale, whereas in previous years, a passing score was two or higher.

This year 74.5 percent of students hit that mark on the first try, according to the department. Students who did not pass on their first try had two more attempts over the summer.

After the second attempt in May, the department announced the pass rate jumped to 82 percent. While a marked improvement, that means the remaining 6,000 students have just one more chance, or they can be held back.

The law has been heralded by state officials as a policy that ultimately improves student opportunity. At the state level, officials say the Literacy Based Promotion Act is a form of prevention and intervention rather than a way to retain students.

“Third grade is that critical grade level,” said Kristen Wells, assistant state literacy coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Education.

“Reading opens up so many doors and opportunities,” Wells said. “You know, this affects the economic development of our communities, our workforce in Mississippi. It’s bigger than just this third-grade assessment.”

Barriers to passing the exam

The final retest window is June 24-July 12, and districts are working hard to remediate their students in time. But they are working against several barriers, including teacher shortages, low parental engagement, language gaps and even vision problems.

This summer the Mississippi Optometric Association and the Mississippi Vision Association are again offering free eye exams to uninsured children who were unable to pass the test and providing free glasses to students that need them.

For school officials in the Mississippi Delta, coaching students through testing anxiety, re-training fairly new educators, and high teacher turnover factor in kids’ struggles to pass the third grade reading language assessment.

Coahoma County, a district with a student population of about 1,300, had about 63 percent pass rate on the first attempt on the test. Of the 128 third-graders who took the assessment, 28 students have to retest on this last attempt.

“Those third-graders, we found out after looking and researching why they were scoring so low, in first grade, they had a substitute all year for a teacher. In second grade, they had a substitute all year for a teacher. So when they got to third grade, this year, they couldn’t function,” said Ilean Richards, interim superintendent of Coahoma County schools at a June 12 school board meeting.

Clarksdale Municipal School District is slightly larger with about 2,300 students and is also experiencing a teacher shortage. Toya Matthews, assistant superintendent in the Clarksdale schools, echoed Richards, citing turnover “in every school except one.” Of the 208 third-graders in the district, 90 must take the final retest. Only 40.4 percent of the students passed on the first try.

Districts across the state are scrambling to get certified teachers in their classrooms as the teacher shortage is at an all-time high especially in the Delta. Just last year, 19 percent of teachers were not certified in the Clarksdale district, according to data from the MDE.

“We’re not making excuses, but there’s a story behind that number,” Matthews said.

A good teacher is one of the most critical and impactful components of student success, Tenette Smith, MDE executive director of elementary education and reading told Mississippi Today. Smith acknowledged that some districts struggle to employ and retain qualified teachers.

“So you may have a school with a student or a group of students who may not have had a certified teacher from kindergarten to third grade,” she said.

To combat this the state’s literacy coaches are doing the best they can to try and shore up the gap.

“If you’re in front of the kids, we’re going to take the time to make sure we build your capacity and give you everything, all the resources we can,” Wells said. “Every teacher is a reading teacher, whether you want to be one or not.”

The state has assigned 80 literacy coaches to 182 school districts struggling the most with proficiency. These coaches spend a few days a week in the districts assisting teachers in instruction and modeling lessons. Recently, the department announced $3 million for summer reading grants in 24 school districts to help struggling readers.

Since 2014, the MDE has offered professional development to more than 13,000 teachers on the essentials of teaching reading and spelling, Wells said.

Getting involved

Amid the increasing teacher shortage, all three districts point to common themes when asked to identify why students are failing, including the lack of parental involvement.

Roshunda Young, instructional specialist in the Clarksdale district, said it’s difficult to get parents involved early on. Attendance at the beginning of the year pep rally and district-led parent nights were low, she said. Infrequent school visits, loaded work schedules, and a lack of communication contribute to the low participation, she added.

“You have to remember in our demographic, a lot of those parents are working two or three jobs,” Young said. “It’s all these different factors that play into trying to provide support for the students, but understanding that our parents are struggling trying to do that in their homes as well.”

Jefferson County faces similar problems. At 10.9 percent, the rural county’s unemployment rate is the highest in the state, something superintendent Adrian Hammitte says causes many parents to look for work elsewhere and makes engagement difficult. More than a third of residents in the county live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data, and the 1100-student district is 100 percent free and reduced lunch.

“The reality is a lot of our kids, they don’t have that support that they really need at home,”Hammitte said. “As I told all of our administrators we’re not going to make any excuses, we have them long enough to get them where they need to be, but it doesn’t hurt to have that outside support.”

The district is hosting parent town halls this summer to try and increase parental involvement. It’s crucial, Hammitte said, because “we have to get buy-in from the parents. We want to make sure the parents are supportive.”

Hammitte says despite the district’s challenges, he is optimistic the students receiving remediation this summer can pass the test. He’s also realistic – the district is working with parents to take away the stigma of being held back.

“The goal is to make sure you’re at grade level,” Hammitte said. “If you’re held back but we can get you at grade level, there are opportunities for you to be successful in life.”

What is being done?

In Jefferson County, nearly half of all third-graders passed the test on the first try. To remediate those who did not, the district launched its literacy camp June 3. From roughly 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., students practiced reading comprehension and vocabulary skills. There were 26 students who needed to take the third retest, but only 21 came consistently, he said.

Students work through reading passages in the Jefferson County School District.

Third-grade teacher Yashica Suddeth said students seem to have issues understanding point of view and the main idea of a story.

On a recent Monday morning in June, Suddeth walked her students through a reading passage, just like Woods, the literacy coach, did in another room down the hallway.

Suddeth wore a T-shirt that bore the image of a black girl with big puffy ponytails holding a book titled, Ready! Set! READ!

The students were reading about a girl with long hair that “disappeared” as she walked through a field of tall corn, which led to a conversation with students about the meaning of an idiom. Discussions like these took place throughout the district as students prepared for the final retest.

Jefferson County Elementary School principal LaRondrial Barnes said the school’s primary challenge right now is making up for deficits, many of which started early in a child’s educational life. Hammitte agreed, telling Mississippi Today it is the biggest problem facing the school district.

“Too many of our students are reaching the third grade below grade level, and it’s hard for any teacher to get those students at or above grade level coming in two or three grades behind,” Hammitte said.

In the past, whether a child gets promoted to the next grade “has been kind of subjective,” Hammitte said, meaning the decision was left to the teacher.

“Moving forward, we want to make sure that we’re very clear about meeting mastery,” to move on, he said.

The district is required by the state to have a remediation plan in place, Hammitte said, but there is also room for innovation. Students who attend the literacy camp to prepare for the test are also participating in the district’s summer reading institute. The children are registered with the local library and challenged to read as many books as they can during the summer break. When the school year begins, the district will also build in an additional 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading time into the schedule, Hammitte said.

Similar to Jefferson County, the Delta districts created reading programs for students to get additional remediation before they retest.

In both districts, students were bused in every morning around 8 a.m. at their respective schools, leaving by noon. Though each program is different, teachers in both districts focused on vocabulary, foundational skills, fluency and comprehension.

This is the first year Coahoma County established this reading academy to target third- and second-graders who are struggling. There were four teachers with no more than 11 students in a class to create a more intimate learning environment.

“It’s very intentional. It’s driven by the students’ needs, and so we can focus on exactly what they need,” said LaTasha Turner, curriculum and testing coordinator in the Coahoma schools.

Unlike Coahoma, Clarksdale Municipal hosts literacy programs every summer as an extension of learning that took place during the school year, Matthews said.

Seven teachers are working hard, but even then,“it’s a heavy lift to try to get students across because of some of those foundational issues,” Matthews said.

Students had no problems answering questions when a passage was read to them, which means they don’t have a problem with comprehension, Matthews said.

“Independent reading is where they struggle the most,” said Rasheda Barksdale, consultant for the reading program in Clarksdale. “They get frustrated.”

On a recent Thursday morning, Barksdale passed out a worksheet with a passage, “Peter Possum Played Tricks,” to her students for their shared-reading time.

As Barksdale read aloud, some students were fixated on the text. Others flipped through the pages, looked around the room or laid their heads on the desk. Barksdale asked her ten students questions related to the reading.

“What does trotted mean? Underline trotted in your text,” she said. It took a few tries before the classroom came to the correct answer.

“It means walked,” said Barksdale. “Write the word walked beside trotted. Make those connections.”

Minding the gap

Some students also face a language gap that can pose problems when taking the test. Students who live in areas of poverty have less vocabulary words in their language base, said Young, the Clarksdale instructional specialist.

“We don’t necessarily sit down and say, ‘Oh, the teacher didn’t do what he or she is supposed to do.’ We recognize that there are other outlier factors that contribute to what our students just simply do not have,” she said.

Smith, with the MDE, cited a recent example she’s seen where students were asked a question about subways, but some misunderstood because the only experience they’ve ever had with that word is the sandwich shop. This can cause issues, “Especially on a standardized assessment,” she said.

This is something educators are attempting to tackle early on, she said.

“Our kindergarten teachers are constantly talking with our students to help them develop their oral language skills so that they will understand that a couch and a sofa are the same thing,” Smith said.

For some districts, it is also a challenge to make sure the students are present on test day.

“We still have some children that we haven’t been able to reach … like those babies will fail because I don’t even know if they’re going to make it here to test,” Turner said.

In all three districts, educators agreed that it’s important to set a high bar for students. They also contemplate if this level of accountability is the best method for students at this age.

Turner suggested a growth model could be beneficial.

“All children are never going to be in the same performance range, but we’re asking them to get to a three, four or five. So you’re automatically going to have some students who are always going to be behind because by nature some children are going to struggle,” Turner said.

It’s also a challenge to get third-graders to understand the magnitude of the test.

“No matter what, they’re still third-graders and that’s a lot right now,” Turner said. “Thinking about us adults trying to take the ACT or the Praxis, that’s what this is for third-graders.”

Barnes, the Jefferson County Elementary principal, said it’s almost like trying to get third-graders to think like 14-or-15-year-olds.

Jefferson County Elementary School principal LaRondrial Barnes

“You have this dark cloud of failure hanging over your head (about) being retained in the third grade,” Barnes said. “We do a pretty intense job of trying to make sure our kids are aware of the importance of this test before it gets to that point, however you’re dealing with third-graders who have basically taken their first standardized test in their lives.”

He worries about the potential ramifications for students who can’t meet proficiency.

Technically, if a student fails all three exams they will be held back, but there are “good cause exemptions” for students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities, and students receiving intensive remediation.

Last year, an MDE report said 1,398 students failed their retests but due to good cause exemptions, only 517 were held back.

“We understand the mentality is to continue to improve and continue to close the education gaps but at the same time we have to be cognizant of the fact that these are lives that we are affecting and these are kids who are basically 9 years old,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot that we’re putting on their plate in terms of how it will affect them in the long term.”

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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.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.