Mississippi education officials are predicting that, even with the state’s intense focus on improving reading skills in the lower elementary grades, about 20 percent of third-graders will receive a failing score on the proficiency test they recently took.
Even after two more tries, unless the state plays games with the curve or grants an unusually high number of exemptions, at least twice as many third-graders will not be allowed to advance to fourth grade as in recent years.
That’s because the bar for the so-called “third-grade gate” reading test was set so low initially that all but the totally illiterate passed.
Instead of the previous passing score of two on a scale of 1-to-5, the new threshold is three. Last year, 25 percent of students tested did not meet that mark on their first try.
So the question remains, as it has from the start after Gov. Phil Bryant and Republican lawmakers pushed this reform through a few years ago: What’s the plan when the test produces a huge uptick in retention in a state that already holds back more students than the norm?
Emphasizing the importance of reading well is important. There is no denying that reading is the most fundamental building block to academic achievement. If a student can’t read well, it’s almost guaranteed that the student will get frustrated, do poorly in school and, if not drop out, only skirt by because teachers don’t want to deal with him or her for any longer than absolutely necessary.
The third-grade reading test is supposed to make it harder to practice such social promotion, at least early in a student’s life. That intent likewise is commendable. It does no one much good to move a student all the way through school and award the student with a diploma that is meaningless. It doesn’t help the state, which is desperate to raise the education level of its populace. It doesn’t help the reputation of public education. And ultimately it doesn’t help the student, as the student’s true level of academic achievement will eventually become obvious, producing failure in college or in the workplace. A functionally illiterate high school graduate is not going to get much farther in a career than a dropout.
Nevertheless, how are Mississippi schools going to deal with a record number of failed students, especially in low-performing schools that could see a third or more of their third-graders unable to clear the bar?
We’re about to find out.