Statewide testing within the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program proved more difficult for third-grade students than in previous years.

That’s due to the fact that the Literacy-Based Promotion Act only required children to reach the second level out of five tiers when it was implemented in the 2014-15 school year.

This year was the first where nearly 35,000 students were required to reach beyond to advance to the fourth grade.

“The passing score was raised to get closer to measuring proficiency,” said Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “Once we raised expectations, students and teachers have proven, once again, they can meet higher academic standards.

“We must not let up on our efforts to ensure that all students are equipped with strong reading skills by the end of third grade so they can be successful throughout their education.”

Of those tested within the state, almost 9,000 students did not meet the requirements – just over 25 percent, the largest amount on record since the exam’s introduction.

The statewide pass rate for the assessment increased to 82.8 percent after students had a chance to retest before the end of the school year. The initial pass rate was 74.5 percent.

Among all school districts, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the higher bar on the test ranged from a high of 94.1 percent to a low of 32.4 percent.

Locally, those numbers resulted in higher averages for area school districts than most throughout the state.

Oxford School District and New Albany Public Schools were ranked among the 10 highest in the state, with 87.9 percent and 89.2 percent of students meeting the requirement, respectively.

“We have made the transition to standards-based grading in the primary grades,” said Oxford School District superintendent Brian Harvey. “Our teachers know the standards and when students begin to struggle, they intervene. We will be looking for ways to improve with each child in 2020.”

Within Tupelo Public School District, 509 third-grade students took the test, with 427 passing and 82 not reaching the threshold – around 16 percent.

Comparatively, when the test only required a level two standard, TPSD’s pass rate was 94.3 percent in the 2017-18 school year and 93.5 percent in 2016-17.

“By increasing the rigor of it, from last year from a level two to now having to go to a level three, I feel very good about our 84 percent pass rate,” said Paige Tidwell, TPSD director of school improvement.

Booneville School District passed over 76 percent of its students, with 23 percent failing to make the grade. Pontotoc City Schools advanced nearly 85 percent of its students and Pontotoc County School District fell just under with 83 percent moving forward.

In Lee County Schools, just over 25 percent of third-grade students enrolled did not meet those requirements.

“What we do know is that we will review the areas where our students were the weakest, compare those areas to the incoming third-graders this year and do our best to make sure we do a better job in those areas,” LCS superintendent Dr. Jimmy Weeks said.

Weeks added that a moving target – referring to the cut scores that were raised with the level three mandate – is hard to hit.

“That always changes the game during the first year of raising the bar,” Weeks said.

Union County School District literacy coach Sara Johnson echoed Weeks’ remarks.

“With the increased expectation level, (we) had more students than ever not pass the gate on the first try,” Johnson said of the 12.5 percent of Union County students that failed to meet the threshold needed to advance. “Despite this fact, we are relatively pleased with the results.”

Johnson said that the district looked at various data points throughout the year to identify students who needed intervention.

“Our teachers worked hard to intervene on an individual level,” she said. “We found, in many cases, struggling students needed basic phonics or reading strategies that we were able to provide support for these students.

“We learned the more proactive we are in diagnosing what students need, the more successful we are on the state test. It is simply unfair to the students to wait until the test is taken to realize they were not performing at the expected level. Next year, our plan is to continue to identify students who need support and intervene as much as possible. Our district focuses on the individual growth of students and our teachers are committed to reaching all children, despite learning differences.”

The Mississippi Department of Education has assigned 80 literacy coaches to 182 schools throughout the state where data show students struggle the most with reading. In addition, grants were awarded to local schools including Myrtle Attendance in Union County, Union Elementary in Union Public Schools, South Pontotoc Elementary in Pontotoc County Schools and New Albany Elementary totaling $490,000 in support of reading camps for the next three years.

“Literacy must remain a major focus in pre-K through third grade to help students build the foundational reading skills they need to be successful throughout school,” superintendent Wright said. “As we raise expectations for students, we must do all that we can to help them meet higher academic standards.”

derek.russell@journalinc.com Twitter: @wderekrussell

Features, arts and entertainment reporter for Daily Journal.

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