Students prepare for the 'third grade reading gate' in the Jefferson County School District on June 17, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Mississippi third-graders scored similarly to 2019 levels on the “third grade reading gate,” showing relatively little pandemic learning loss. 

The Mississippi Department of Education released the initial results of the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) Third Grade Reading Summative Assessment on Thursday. In total, 73.9% of students passed the exam on the first try compared to 74.5% in 2019.

The Mississippi Legislature created the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013, which requires all third-graders to pass a reading test before moving up to the fourth grade. Students must score a 3 or higher on the test to be promoted, which indicates they are competent in skills such as identifying main ideas, paraphrasing texts, understanding figurative language, determining the author’s point of view as well as their own, and using root words, prefixes and suffixes to change word meanings. 

These test results are the first that students will be held accountable for since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, students still tested as a benchmark even though passing was not required to advance; only 65.4% of students scored at the passing level. 

Kim Benton, interim chief academic officer, attributed the return to pre-pandemic passing levels (when compared to the 2021 scores) to the hard work of teachers, leaders, families, and students.

“I think they were very intentional in determining their priorities, finding out exactly where children were strong and where the opportunities to bridge gaps were — and then just plugging in,” Benton said. 

Benton highlighted during the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday that schools with high initial pass rates attributed it to maximizing in-person instruction and maintaining a full schedule of instructional days, strengthening communication with families, and utilizing the support materials provided by MDE. 

“As a parent, looking at those numbers, I think it gives parents a great comfort that the learning loss everybody has been worried about from COVID is not as bad as everybody expected,” said Matt Miller, board member of the State Board of Education.  

Just over 8,000 students who did not pass on their first attempt had the opportunity to retest May 9-13 and have another chance June 20-July 8. In 2019, when 9,000 students did not pass the first attempt, approximately 4,000 more students had passed by the final retest and 4,000 more were promoted with good cause exemptions, such as disabilities or passing an alternative assessment. 

For students that did not pass on the first two attempts, districts will be utilizing pandemic relief funds to run summer reading camps, creating individualized reading plans for students, utilizing the PAPER tutoring program, and strengthening community partnerships that support students learning to read. 

“The hard work of teachers, students and parents to overcome academic setbacks caused by the pandemic is paying off,” said State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright.

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Julia James is Mississippi Today's poverty and breaking news reporter. A native of Mandeville, Louisiana, James recently completed an investigative reporting internship with Mississippi Today. In that role, she closely covered the sprawling welfare scandal and public education. She will continue that work, as well as working closely with Mississippi Today’s breaking news team. James is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has been published in The New York Times, Mississippi Today, and Clarion Ledger.