Lawmakers Must Ensure Full Support for Third Grade Reading Gate to See Success
In continuing our look at education in Mississippi, we shift back to K-12 education. Recently, attention has been focused on the Literacy-Based Promotion Act or Third-Grade Reading Gate law that will take effect in schools across Mississippi this year. Under the law, any third grade student not able to read at grade level by the end of the school year will be held back. Proponents of the law note that after the third grade, students begin reading to learn instead of learning to read. However, others are concerned that the state will not provide the needed resources to ensure that students struggling to read have a pathway toward remediation. While innovation in how we educate our children is very important, we must also ensure that sufficient resources are provided to allow for its success.
As Mississippi schools once again open their doors to learners across the state, students at the third grade level face a new reality. If they cannot read at grade level by the end of the school year, they will have to repeat their grade. Last year, approximately 5,000 of Mississippi’s third graders (46.5%) scored below “proficient” on the state language assessment. This rate is extremely high and is cause for concern. To combat the situation, lawmakers passed the reading level act requirements in 2013 with Senate Bill 2347. Proponents have stated that students can begin being assessed for reading problems beginning in Kindergarten and that children who are falling behind will receive special attention leading up to their third grade year.
Mississippi’s reading gate act is modeled after Florida’s own model, which has proven to be quite successful. For Mississippi’s program to be successful, significant resources and support are needed. Unfortunately, Mississippi has not dedicated the means to ensure that success. For instance, the final version of SB 2347 allows but does not require schools to screen student reading levels on an annual basis until the end of their third grade year, potentially nullifying early intervention. Further, the state only hired 41 of the 75 specially trained literacy coaches it had hoped to have for the 2014-15 school year. These coaches are only able to cover 67 “target schools” that have a high percentage of struggling readers – Mississippi has 155 school districts, however, and over 450 elementary schools. In trying to prevent “social promotion,” students will be advanced to the fourth grade only after being retained two years; however, no additional supports were mandated in SB 2347 for these particular students once held back. Florida requires annual screenings from Kindergarten, allocates substantial resources to their program, and mandates more reading coaches. Mississippi should at least match the commitment of Florida, but we have not done so yet.
Mississippi currently has the highest percentage (51.3%) of children under the age of 18 living in working poor families. What’s more, according to Kid’s Count, Mississippi children are last in the nation for overall child well-being. The realities of poverty shape a child’s life in countless ways, and they need more than a reading assessment at the end of their third grade year to change their circumstances. Reading is key to success, but for the third grade reading gate to make a positive difference for Mississippi children, adequate resources for education and attention to the variables, outside of the classroom that inhibit children’s success will be required.
SAVE THE DATE: MEPC’s Policy Conference “Tackling Persistent Poverty: Why Here? Why Now?” on Thursday, October 30, 2014, at the Jackson Convention Complex
-Deeneaus Polk, Policy Analyst