Reading deadline looms for Mississippi third-graders

Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey M. Wright (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey M. Wright  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey M. Wright (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Thousands of Mississippi parents could get a letter at the end of this school year notifying them their third graders have failed because of a legislative mandate to hold them back if they don’t read well enough.

The state Board of Education could approve the letter Friday, discussing efforts Thursday to help cut the number of failing students.

In 2012, about 5,000 of Mississippi’s 37,000 third graders scored “minimal” on state standardized tests. Nathan Oakley, state director of curriculum and instruction, said a similarly-sized group is in danger this year, although declined to estimate how many children might fail.

Numbers discussed Thursday show one key method of state help is reaching only a fraction of the state’s hundreds of elementary schools. State education officials hired 41 reading coaches and coordinators this year, again short of the goal of 75 after finishing last year with 32. Coaches and coordinators are serving 67 schools with the highest shares of struggling readers. There are more than 450 schools in Mississippi with students in grades K-3.

That limited reach is a contrast to Alabama and Florida, which implemented similar programs with goals of placing a coach in each K-3 school. Those states spent much more, proportionally, than Mississippi. Here, lawmakers allotted $15 million for the program, up from $8 million last year.

Board member Wayne Gann of Corinth asked why so few coaches have been hired.

“It seems to me, out of $15 million, we ought to be able to do more,” he said.

State Superintendent Carey Wright replied that some teachers have been hesitant to apply because they fear funding will be cut and they will lose jobs. The state has also tried to pick only the best instructors, rejecting more than 400 applicants this summer.

Mississippi does have a broader reach in training, teaching new methods of reading instruction to 4,000 teachers and 600 principals. A second program is likely to provide coaches through a private contractor to some C-rated schools in north Mississippi.

This spring, Mississippi will judge whether third graders should advance based on a computerized test called the Mississippi K-3 Assessment Support System that the state is paying $1.1 million to Renaissance Learning to develop. Oakley said the roughly 30-minute test will be given in April.

In future years, the state plans to rely on the multi-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests. Those PARCC tests will be given for the first time this year and Oakley said it would take too long to get results because of first-time score release delays.

Students who fail the test could still get promoted to fourth grade if they pass a retest or fall in certain exempted categories, including English language learners, special education students, or students who have repeated a grade twice.

Those who flunk are legally required to get intensive attention next year, including 90-minutes a day of uninterrupted reading instruction and 30 to 60 minutes of one-on-one or small group instruction multiple times a week.