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Mississippi: Set Expectations, Force Actions and Celebrate Reading Success

• Cari Miller

If you knew teaching a child a basic skill would significantly improve his or her success in life, you would do everything in your power to make that happen, right?

A few years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that 88 percent of students who fail to graduate from high school were struggling readers in third grade. By simply teaching students to read by fourth grade, schools can help put students on a path to a lifetime of success.

This is exactly what Mississippi is working toward.

In 2013, the state established the Literacy-Based Promotion Act to make sure all students enter fourth grade with the foundational reading skills they will need to learn and succeed. The policy starts early. Beginning in kindergarten, screenings help identify students with potential reading difficulties. When at-risk students are identified, educators monitor progress and work with parents to create individual reading plans and find the right interventions to help students learn.

Earlier this month Mississippi’s State Board approved the “cut score” on the state’s third grade reading assessment. Cut scores are selected points used to determine whether a particular test score is sufficient for some purpose; in this case, the score determines whether a third grader has sufficient reading skills to move on to fourth grade. On the first of three attempts to take the test, roughly, 85% of Mississippi third-grade students demonstrated the required reading skills for promotion to fourth grade.

As a result, Mississippi schools have lots to celebrate.

In the Pearl River County district, 99.5 percent of students demonstrated sufficient reading skills on the third-grade reading assessment and will be promoted to fourth grade. Alan Lumpkin, the district superintendent credits the district’s early effort to identifying and tutoring struggling students.  “There’s no real secret,” Lumpkin explained. “It was a lot of hard work and a focused effort by our students, our teachers and our parents.”

Rachelle Holston, a third-grade teacher at the school, explained how the school created a game plan to focus on struggling readers. “Every day, we worked on certain skills, and I think that’s what did it,” she said.

Most Mississippi third graders demonstrated through the first reading test that they are ready to move on to fourth grade, while 15 percent of students did not.

These nearly 5,600 students will have two additional opportunities to take the test to show they are ready for fourth-grade work. In fourth grade, coursework becomes much more rigorous, and to learn students need to be able to read.

To further help struggling readers, districts and schools are providing third-graders with additional supports and services to strengthen their reading skills. More Mississippi students will demonstrate they have sufficient reading skills for promotion, and some will simply need more time with more intensive interventions to develop the necessary reading skills for future academic success.

In districts with lower passing rates, schools are finding new ways to bolster reading skills. In Greenville, where only 63 percent of students passed, the district has established mandatory summer school for students in grades K-3.

Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act sets the expectation that by fourth grade students will be able to read to learn.  This elevated expectation prompts adults to give students more support and intervene on their behalf – believing every step of the way that students can and will succeed.  These actions translate into increased learning.

Lady Bird Johnson once said, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”  Mississippi clearly believes the ability to read opens doors and opportunities that every child deserves. And that belief is fueling life-changing action in the state.

About the author

Cari Miller

Cari Miller serves as Policy Director of Early Literacy for ExcelinEd. She works hand in hand with states pursuing a comprehensive approach to K-3 reading policy, and she supports state departments with effective policy implementation. Cari is a former elementary teacher and reading coach. She also served as the Deputy Director of Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. At Just Read, Florida!, she served in other capacities, including: Elementary Reading Specialist, Director of Reading First and Director of Elementary Reading. Her sole mission is to improve student reading achievement across the nation.