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Analysis: Big jump to make third-graders achieve reading proficiency, not just basic skills


JACKSON, Mississippi — State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright wants to move the goalposts on third-grade literacy, requiring students to score significantly higher to advance to fourth grade. But Gov. Phil Bryant, while he says he supports higher standards, said he thinks that should be done gradually, and only if lawmakers add more money for help.

The Mississippi Department of Education announced last week that 92 percent of last year's nearly 38,000 third graders had passed the test after three attempts. But not even 8 percent are actually repeating third grade this year. That's because the state is still gathering data on how many students didn't pass the test but got exemptions and were allowed to advance to fourth grade anyway.

Those who will move ahead with exemptions could be a large share of the remaining 2,900 who didn't pass. In Tupelo, for example, more than 40 of 517 third-graders didn't pass the test, according to state numbers. But Superintendent Gearl Loden told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that the majority of those were special education students who received exemptions and were allowed to advance. He said only 10 students didn't get exemptions and were retained.

Wright has emphasized repeatedly that passing the third-grade test only required a basic score level and that many students who barely cleared the bar will need extra help in fourth grade. Now, though, she wants to require more, asking lawmakers to change the law to require not just basic skills but proficiency.

"If the goal is to ensure that our students are successful in 4th grade and beyond, we need to set high expectations for them to be proficient readers," she said in a statement.

State education officials say that because they only set a passing score based on basic performance levels, they can't say how many third graders were proficient last year. They say they believe that students have benefited from the focus on reading since the law was passed. But historically, very large shares of students have scored below proficient levels. Several thousand students who initially failed last spring but later passed, for example, would be far away from actual proficiency.

Bryant himself repeated the third grade as he worked to overcome dyslexia, as he often recounts publicly. He's saying the test helped cut the number of third-graders struggling with reading.

"Before the Third Grade Gate prioritized early literacy, nearly half of Mississippi third graders couldn't read proficiently," Bryant said in a campaign email last week. "When the first reading test was given under the new program, 15 percent of third graders failed. In the latest testing, that number was cut by almost half to about 8 percent."

Bryant's campaign comes close to conflating different numbers. In the 2014 statewide standardized tests, 49 percent of third-graders scored below proficient on language arts, while 17.5 percent scored below basic levels. But as Wright notes, that test includes other skills besides reading.

Some measures find even fewer Mississippi students are proficient. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test that sets a higher bar than many state tests, found in 2013 that only 26 percent of Mississippi fourth graders were proficient in reading. NAEP doesn't test at the third-grade level.

Wright says early-warning testing of incoming kindergartners will help detect students who need help as they enter school. She also continues to push for Mississippi to expand its small program supporting prekindergarten classes.

Spokeswoman Nicole Webb said Bryant supports higher standards, but thinks the state needs a extended approach "as well as additional resources for reaching coaches and literacy support."

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