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Mitchell: Could State Finally Be serious About Learning to Read?

A well-worn adage in education circles is that children must learn to read in grades one-three because afterward they must read to learn.

Final results of Mississippi’s high-stakes tests for third-graders were released by the state Department of Education last week. They show that 2,900 students must be retained until they can pass the “Reading Summative Assessment.”

That may sound high, but it could have been worse.

There were three rounds of testing. The first round sent education officials back to the chalkboard.

After declaring that “Third Grade Gate” was the official policy of the state and that no student could be passed to the fourth without passing the reading test, 15 percent (5,800) of the Mississippi’s 38,000 third-graders initially failed to reach the lowest benchmark.

That triggered the additional rounds, preceded by intensive coaching, to improve the pass rate.

Gov. Phil Bryant told The Clarion-Ledger that $39.5 million was invested in coaching. He was happy with the much-lower number. “The policy is yielding positive results for Mississippi children,” he told the Jackson newspaper.

Mississippi’s history of political involvement with classroom matters is, like the history of federal involvement with classroom matters, checkered.

There was a time when local governments, aided by the state, collected taxes to provide buildings, books and teachers. The rest was left up to school boards, principals and those trained in providing instructional services. The U.S. Department of Education wasn’t even created until 1979.

Times have changed. Today, what courses should be taught and when, the length of lunch breaks and even how schoolwork can be graded is often a matter of legislation.

All through this, Mississippi, followed its heritage of resenting, resisting or at least questioning anything emanating from Washington. No Child Left Behind and its predecessors were greeted suspiciously, enacted with great reservation.

More recently, even though Common Core was developed at the behest of state governors and endorsed by former Gov. Haley Barbour, members of the Mississippi Legislature last year decreed it was evil incarnate. It was even linked to Obama, which is code, you know, for “fight it to the death” among all right-thinking Mississippians. Actually, the president had nothing to do with it, but we’re talking politics, not reality.

As part of this ongoing rebellion, the state decreed once and for all that Mississippi and only Mississippi would decide what was good for Mississippi schools.

“Third Grade Gate” is, tangentially at least, a part of the insurgency. Schools were told to objectively certify fourth-grade reading readiness or retain students. Period.

It was a necessary, but strong move. And it was scary given that an earlier battery of tests (MCT2) indicated as many as 28 percent of third-graders might be retained.

That triggered some thought, which resulted in deciding what would be a passing score after the first round of testing.

Tantamount to drawing the finish line after the race was run? Yes.

Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of State Superintendents called that “kind of gerrymandering,” but was glad it had taken place.

And just because 1,900 more students eased through the “gate” in rounds two and three doesn’t mean the work is over. While the law doesn’t require reading “proficiency” to enter fourth grade, those who barely made it must be given extra help this year.

In truth, Mississippi has had an array of high-stakes testing going back many, many years. For a while, and in response to citizen complaints that high school graduates couldn’t balance their checkbooks, the state required all high school seniors to pass a Functional Literacy Exam before receiving their diplomas. (It tested, among other things, the ability to balance a checkbook.)
And there have been myriad others.

It’s really yet clear whether Third Grade Gate will take Mississippi to a golden plateau in education management, but there can be little argument that it’s one heck of a solid start.

Florida and North Carolina have also piloted this approach. Mississippi could have gotten started with more energy way back in 2000. That’s when the Barksdale family got a tepid response to a $100 million pledge to support reading instruction for the youngest students. But it’s here now and here’s hoping the powers that be don’t water it down.

The adage is old, but true. For students who don’t read fairly well by fourth grade, every year is tougher. It’s not fair to move failing students along, only to keep failing at higher and higher levels.

One more thing: Here’s hoping no one says Third Grade Gate was Obama’s idea, or it will be doomed, too.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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