Third-grade testing update has the state in quandry

The good news is that another 3,000 third-graders have gotten a high enough score on Mississippi’s reading test to advance to the fourth grade.

The bad news is that, short of a miracle on their last-chance test this summer, up to 5,000  of Mississippi’s 35,000 third graders will fall short and be held back for the coming year. Most likely, between 11 and 14 percent of the state’s third graders will not move ahead. Last year only 6 percent of them had to repeat.

The larger number of third graders who must repeat next year is definitely a concern. The fear is that over time, the third grade will become clogged with kids struggling to pass the test.

But the reason for the increase in third-grade enrollment is a good one: The state raised the bar of the reading test’s passing grade.

In prior years, students who reached the second-lowest of five ability levels were considered to have passed the test. This year, students had to get to the third level to pass. In report card talk, they had to get a C this year, while a D was enough in prior years.

If reading, writing and comprehension is important — and all studies say it is vital that children master these abilities as they move through school and into adulthood — then Mississippi is doing the right thing by requiring higher scores to advance to fourth grade.

There will certainly be some short-term pain in the form of larger third-grade classes. More parents will be upset that their children are being held back, but any teacher or principal who gets a complaint about it should tell the parents to help their kids learn more about reading and writing.

The bigger challenge is how to reduce the number of third-graders that get held back. The answer is pretty simple: The state and its school districts must invest more money in trained employees who can help.

If it’s correct that 11 to 14 percent of this year’s third graders will be held back, it’s reasonable to set a long-range goal of cutting that number in half, to the 5 to 7 percent range.

It’s also easy to predict that a large percentage of students held back will be in rural, poor and largely black school districts. These are the schools that need the most help from the state.

In fact, a lot of remedial work already is going on. The state pays for “literacy coaches” in 182 elementary schools, and students who repeat third grade are supposed to get tutoring from highly qualified teachers. The state provides instruction on how to teach reading and pays for summer reading programs.

But it’s not enough. The results of this year’s third-grade reading test calls for a greater investment of manpower. It will cost the Legislature more money, but it looks like the schools with the most repeating third-graders need more literacy coaches and teacher training, for starters.

It will take time and money, and it will be expensive and challenging, but this is an investment that would help Mississippi. Let’s see which political candidates are interested.

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