Literacy and Third-grade Reading

Despite myriad challenges, Mississippi’s fourth graders have for more than two decades outpaced the U.S. average in improvement in national reading scores. This steady growth means our students now rank 21st in the nation in fourth-grade reading; Mississippi students living in low-wealth households rank 2nd in the nation when compared to low-wealth children in other states.

Over the years, there has been a strong correlation between increases in school funding and improvement in student achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fourth grade reading test scores improved significantly following big increases in school funding between 2005 and 2009, and then dipped following budget cuts in 2009-2012. Reading outcomes returned to their upward trajectory when school funding rebounded beginning in 2013.

The Literacy-based Promotion Act, also known as the “third-grade gate,” was passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Governor Bryant during the 2013 Legislative session. The law requires screening of all K-3rd grade students to identify reading deficiencies and requires that districts provide intensive reading instruction for those students who have deficiencies. It requires that students be retained if deficiencies are not resolved by end of the third grade, with only a few good-cause exemptions.

The Parents’ Campaign endorsed the House version of the bill, which provided for teacher training and literacy coaches, and strongly urged the Senate to include those provisions in their version. The Senate finally added training but made it subject to appropriation, while the punitive measures (retention) for children were kept in place.

The Parents’ Campaign opposed the final iteration of the 2013 Literacy-based Promotion Act because of its omission of literacy coaches and because teacher training would be mandated only if the Legislature appropriated funds. The appropriation of $9.5-million for implementation amounted to an underfunded mandate for school districts that already had been underfunded for years. The bill also left out important provisions that were included in the Florida law after which it was modeled (specifically, good-cause exemptions for special education students and students who demonstrate proficiency based on a portfolio of coursework). In the Mississippi law, for promotion to fourth grade, students were required to score at or above Performance Level 2 on the reading and language (not writing) portions of the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program – English Language Arts, or meet limited exemptions.

While the final legislation was overwhelmingly punitive and omitted proven remedies and resources advocated by The Parents’ Campaign, educators and reading experts intervened, responding to the poorly written act with a plan for reading coaches and resources to mitigate potential negative impacts on children.

In the 2014 session, lawmakers agreed to an almost 60% increase in literacy funding, allotting $15-million for the 2014-2015 school year in which the new law’s requirements took effect.

The increased funding made possible a wider implementation of training and literacy coaches in school districts. The Barksdale Reading Institute had piloted a reading coaching model in schools and championed the use of LETRS training for teachers; both initiatives, though excluded from the LBPA, were implemented as part of Mississippi’s literacy efforts.

The Mississippi Legislature in 2016 amended the Literacy-based Promotion Act to provide that, beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, students who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan who have received either intensive remediation for more than two years or who were previously retained for one year can qualify for a good cause exemption.

The law also was amended to require, beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, a score above the lowest two achievement levels in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. 

State funding for literacy initiatives has remained level at $15-million annually since 2014 (initial funding was $9.5-million when the act was passed in 2013). It is critical that lawmakers devote sufficient funding to implement interventions in every school that will allow our students to achieve at the level required for promotion to fourth grade.

Achievement growth consistently has followed investments in education. In the years after full funding of Mississippi’s public schools, learning gains accelerated. Similarly, targeted investments in reading strategies, training for teachers, and literacy coaches have boosted gains by Mississippi’s fourth graders over the past two decades, helping them move from near the bottom nationally to 21st in the U.S. in reading and 33rd in math. Even more impressively, Mississippi’s fourth graders living in low-wealth homes rank 2nd in the nation in reading and 3rd in math when compared to their economically disadvantaged peers in other states.

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