By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi lawmakers may soon increase the stakes for elementary students to learn how to read.
The state’s House and Senate have each passed versions of a bill that would not allow third-grade students to be promoted if they score poorly on a state reading test. The chambers must still reach a compromise on their differing bills, however, before the so-called “third-gate” measure would become law.
Advocates say the bills would focus more attention on the importance of literacy and place a greater emphasis on the subject in schools.
Gov. Phil Bryant, who has pushed for the new literacy requirement, noted that 46.5 percent of Mississippi third-graders failed to score proficient on the state language arts test last spring.
“If we challenge students, families, teachers and administrators to make sure they can read, they will do so,” Bryant said. “I can’t accept believing 46 percent of our children can’t read.”
If students struggling to read advance to fourth grade, Bryant said, they likely will fall farther behind. That will make them more likely to drop out later. Fourth grade, he noted, is a time when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
“We need to quit believing mediocrity is the level we need to achieve and that failure is the only option for 46 percent of our children,” he said.
Others question the impact of retaining so many students and note the social damage retention can have. Older high school students, they say, are also more likely to drop out of school.
State literacy and educational leaders also stress that providing proper supports is an important piece to improving reading instruction.
“Third gate should be about how do we get children reading at grade level before they leave third grade,” said Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute.
“The sound bite is always going to be, ‘No more social promotion.’… Where third gate can be so great is it if forces us to focus our attention and our money on the supports that are necessary. Really the key, critical issue is improving core instruction.”
The House passed two literacy-based promotion bills, including one as part of its version of Bryant’s Education Works package. Those two bills and the Senate measure each state that third-grade students who score the lowest level on state reading tests would be retained, beginning in 2014-15. Under the current state test, that level is called minimal, which is below basic, proficient and advanced.
House Bill 890, the Education Works package, contains elements not found in the other two bills. Those include a Reading Intervention Training Program this summer for teachers at the schools that are most in need. That bill would also retain seventh-grade students scoring minimal in reading or math.
The other House bill and the Senate bill do not mention specific training.
All three allow those who failed the reading test to take an alternate assessment. They also provide for exemptions, such as for English Language Learners, students with certain disabilities or those who have already been retained twice.
The bills call for students to be screened multiple times each year beginning in kindergarten and for those who do poorly on that test to receive extra help. They say students who are retained under the bill should be placed in a class taught by a highly effective teacher.
“I think we are going in the right direction,” said Angela Rutherford, director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction.
“… I’m hopeful that we are going to finally do the right thing for children and not just put a law out there and not fund it.”
The idea for the so-called “third gate” comes from Florida. However, that state provides literacy coaches to all schools to help teachers improve their practice. It also funds a summer reading camp for third-graders who have not passed the reading test. Mississippi’s current bills do not mandate either of those.
Former State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham said he supports the third-gate concept, as long as it is not just one test at the end of third-grade that determines everything. Instead, he said, students should be measured each year and those who are behind should get additional days of instruction.
“If you don’t do it that way and you just build a wall at the end of third grade, you are going to have another crisis in education,” Burnham said. “You are going to have thousands of kids get to that wall and what are you going to do?
“By then, it is too late, probably, to go back and fix what should have been fixed at the end of kindergarten, at the end of first grade, at the end of second grade.”
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden agreed that attention on struggling readers must start in kindergarten and first grade, or ideally with an early childhood program.
“I believe one of the keys to having children on grade level is having a good early childhood program and high-quality instruction with master reading teachers,” he said. “When a child is a struggling reader, you need to have a support system to meet their needs. We use certified interventionists, the Barton Program for dyslexia, and programs like Class Works and Reading Street.”
When students are retained, Loden said, districts should be creative, using fast-track programs that allow them to begin the next year at the point where they finished the previous year, rather than back at the beginning.
Mississippi Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said the state board’s first goal is for all students to exit third grade reading on grade level. She said she supports the third-gate concept and raising the standards.
“There is a lot of work that will need to be done around that particular idea, but we are certainly prepared to work with our school districts, our public and our legislators to help make that a reality,” House said. “… There are many teachers who would tell you they need more training, not only in just the basic teaching of reading, but also, in what do you do to intervene.”