Thursday the ‘Big’ Day for 3rd Graders

By Jeff Amy/Associated Press

PASCAGOULA – On a rain-drenched day in April, students at Pascagoula’s Cherokee Elementary sweated out a computerized 50-question multiple choice test. Third grader Lacey Peeler admitted she was a little nervous about the high stakes attached to the test.

“Kind of, because that’s the only test they give,” Peeler said.

Across Mississippi, 38,000 third graders, their parents and teachers are waiting to find out whether they passed the test and will be moving on to fourth grade. Thousands are likely to fail, but how many won’t be known until the state Board of Education meets Thursday to set the passing score.

David Lavinghouse, who has a stepson and a daughter in third grade in Pascagoula, supports Mississippi’s plan to hold back poor readers. He’s confident his children will pass, but said tighter focus might have benefited an older daughter, now in sixth grade.

“She probably would have been one of the ones that got extra help,” Lavinghouse said. “If they need the extra help, they don’t need to move up.”

Lawmakers said in 2013 that they wanted to ensure struggling students weren’t shuttled into higher grades. Some lawmakers and local superintendents sought a delay this spring in the requirement to flunk students, saying Mississippi hasn’t spent enough on improvement. But the Legislature stood firm on what has been Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature education effort. The Republican failed third grade while fighting dyslexia, and says he succeeded later because of extra help from teachers.

“My belief is we’re doing a disservice to a child by simply passing them, socially promoting them to the fourth grade,” Bryant said Tuesday. “This doesn’t mean simply holding a child back for holding them back. We’re holding them back for intensive intervention.”

Mississippi plans to retain students scoring below basic reading levels. On a different test last year, that would have been 6,500 third graders, about 17 percent statewide. State Superintendent Carey Wright warned the number could be higher this time.

Principal Tina Bankston worries that six of her 60 third graders at Cherokee may not pass.

“It seems a little unfair that we have one thing that determines if you go on or stay in third grade,” Bankston said. “You know that student that comes up a little short will take it really personally.”

Students who fail can take the test again in late May and again over the summer. Pascagoula will offer summer programs to tutor students, but it’s unclear if all of Mississippi’s 146 school districts will make such efforts.

Some students can be promoted even if they don’t pass. Those include students learning English for fewer than two years, students with significant cognitive disabilities, special education students who have had two or more years of intervention and already flunked once, or any students with two or more years of intervention and have flunked twice.

Mississippi’s effort is part of a growing national trend. The Education Commission of the States counts 16 states that flunk third-graders who don’t meet state standards. Mississippi is one of six states that won’t allow low-scoring students to advance even if they’re getting special attention.

Retention is controversial, because research shows students who fail a grade are much more likely to drop out. Mississippi officials pledge those who flunk won’t get “just another year of third grade.”

“They need something totally different,” said Nathan Oakley, who leads the Department of Education’s reading efforts.

Gary Henry, a Vanderbilt University education professor, said third-grade efforts he studied in Georgia and North Carolina gave marginal readers an extra push. But even students who got special attention showed little benefit from retention.

“A clear but mainly ineffective approach is to hold these kids back,” Henry said.

The effort touches on the looming 2016 presidential race. Florida reformed reading instruction under Gov. Jeb Bush, and the potential Republican candidate has lobbied for similar changes elsewhere. Staffers from Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education helped shape Mississippi’s law.

Florida held back 14 percent of third-graders in 2003, the first year of its retention rule. That number has fallen steadily, to about 1.5 percent. Mississippi usually retains about 1 percent of third graders.

Mississippi has retrained teachers, in what officials called a doubling of professional development, and placed reading coaches in 87 low-performing schools this year. But critics say Mississippi’s $15 million in spending this year is too little and falling short of providing reading coaches for all schools, the goal of programs in Alabama and Florida. Mississippi would have to spend $25 million a year to match Florida on a per-student basis, or $40 million to match Alabama.

Mississippi initially struggled to recruit qualified coaches, who help teachers improve their methods. The state recently said it would have 78 coaches for the 125 lowest-performing schools next fall.

“There’s always more you can do,” Bryant said. But he expressed confidence that Mississippi has done enough.

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