Kindergarten students work on a class assignment at Ambition Prep in Jackson, Miss., Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

About one-third of Mississippi kindergarteners demonstrated they were kindergarten ready on a state literacy test this fall, a declining statistic State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said is “further proof” of the pandemic’s negative impact on students.

The Kindergarten Readiness Assessment tests students exiting public pre-K programs and those entering public kindergarten. It measures early literacy skills and is used as an instructional baseline for teachers. It is also used to measure how well pre-kindergarten programs, both the state’s early learning collaboratives and other publicly funded pre-K, prepare four-year-olds for kindergarten.

Among the 33,265 kindergarteners tested, 31.8% scored a 530 or higher on the test. The percentage dropped from 36.6% in fall of 2019. Over half, or 54.74%, score in the bottom range, or “early emergent” reader category. That category encompasses students who are beginning to understand printed text has meaning and beginning to identify shapes, colors, letters and numbers, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

The goal score of 530 indicates a student can identify most letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds. Students who attain this score can also begin to “read” picture books and are building their vocabulary, listening skills and understanding of print, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. The average statewide score for kindergarteners was 487.

Research also shows 85% of students who score a 530 or higher at the beginning of kindergarten are proficient in reading at the end of third grade.

Four-year-olds in the state’s early learning collaboratives also took the test, and 13.05% of those students met the end-of-year benchmark score of 498. In other pre-K programs, 10.10% of four-year-olds in other pre-K programs met the benchmark score.

Tenette Smith, director of elementary education and reading at the Mississippi Department of Education, said the results show the state is right to focus its efforts on pre-K students.

“This says to me we’re targeting the right students because the large majority of our kids are in need of additional supports and strategies,” Smith said when presenting the test results to the State Board of Education Friday.

Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, said pre-K was particularly impacted by the pandemic because virtual learning is more difficult in early education. The Head Start programs that were partners in the state’s early learning collaboratives were entirely virtual during the 2020-21 school year, according to Canter and Smith.

“Other providers held in person classes but did so with a host of new COVID policies, like masking, a shortened school day, increased use of technology and an elimination of field trips,” said Canter, whose organization advocates for early education and is preparing to release a report on the pandemic’s impact on the state’s early learning collaboratives. “Parental engagement, a key piece of early childhood, was also more difficult as in-person parent-teacher conferences and events were suspended.”

Smith emphasized several next steps for the department and educators to combat the pandemic’s detrimental impact: leverage federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand pre-K services and supplemental services such as high dosage tutoring; implement pre-K to kindergarten transition plans; develop partnerships for Head Start; and train all teachers in the science of reading and ensure implementation of that in pre-K through 3rd grade, among other suggestions.

The Mississippi Department of Education has recently kicked off a series of eight regional literacy meetings for families of students in kindergarten through third grade. The goal is to help students by giving parents and other family members strategies to use at home to improve literacy.

READ MORE: How Mississippi schools teach kindergarteners to read

The Kindergarten Readiness Assessment is a component of the Literacy Based Promotion Act passed in the 2013 legislative session. The law places an emphasis on grade-level reading skills, particularly in kindergarten through third grade, and also includes a third grade reading assessment students are required to pass to continue to fourth grade.

Wright, the state superintendent, remained positive.

“Mississippi’s kindergarten teachers are outstanding. Yearly, their hard work leads to significant gains for the state’s youngest students, and I anticipate seeing those gains when students are retested in spring 2022,” she said in a press release announcing the results.

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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.