FAYETTE — Shameka Woods’ classroom was buzzing on a recent Monday morning as 11 students sounded out a reading passage about bees, ants and termites.

The students were working through a handout to answer reading comprehension questions. When they got tripped up over a question that required them to use the text to determine what makes the insects similar, Woods walked them through it.

“OK, what did we say the word ‘similar’ means?” she asked.

A student raised his hand and offered a tentative answer. “Alike?”

“OK. So we want to know how worker ants and worker bees are similar. So where do I go in my passage to find this answer? What subheading?”

A student shouted out a reply but quickly trailed off because he wasn’t reading from the paper. “You’re guessing, Justin!” Woods said. “Look at the passage.”

Woods is one of dozens of literacy coaches working in classrooms across the state as thousands of third graders prepare for their final chance at passing a critical reading exam.

Should they fail, the possibility looms heavy that they’ll have to repeat the grade.

Mississippi Today visited three school districts — Jefferson County, Clarksdale Municipal, and Coahoma County — to better understand what barriers students and school districts face in trying to pass the exam.

• • •

In May, the Mississippi Department of Education announced 8,941 students failed the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program in English Language Arts assessment, known casually as the “third-grade gate.”

The test is a key part of the Literacy Based Promotion Act, which requires all third graders to pass a reading test to determine whether they are ready to move on to the fourth grade.

This  year, students must earn a three or higher out of a five-point scale, whereas in previous years, a passing score was two or higher.

This year, 74.5 percent of students hit that mark on the first try, according to the department. Students who did not pass on the first try had two more attempts over the summer. After the second attempt in May, the department announced the pass rate jumped to 82 percent. Still, that means 6,000 students have just one more chance, or they can be held back.

State officials have praised the law as a policy that ultimately improves student opportunity.

“Third grade is that critical grade level,” said Kristen Wells, assistant state literacy coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Education.

“Reading opens up so many doors and opportunities,” Wells said. “You know, this affects the economic development of our communities, our workforce in Mississippi. It’s bigger than just this third-grade assessment.”

• • •

The final retest window runs through Friday, and districts are working hard to remediate their students in time. But they are working against several barriers.

In Coahoma County, a district with about 1,300 students, about 63 percent passed the test on the first attempt. Of the 128 third graders who took it, 28 have to retest on this last attempt.

“Those third graders, we found out after looking and researching why they were scoring so low, in first grade, they had a substitute all year for a teacher. In second grade, they had a substitute all year for a teacher. So when they got to third grade, this year, they couldn’t function,” Ilean Richards, interim superintendent of Coahoma County schools, said at a June 12 school board meeting.

Clarksdale Municipal School District, which has about 2,300 students, is also experiencing a teacher shortage.

Toya Matthews, assistant superintendent, echoed Richards, citing turnover “in every school except one.” Of the 208 third graders in the district, 90 must take the final retest. Only 40.4 percent of the students passed on the first try.

Just last year, 19 percent of teachers in the Clarksdale district were not certified, according to data from the MDE. “We’re not making excuses, but there’s a story behind that number,” Matthews said.

The state has assigned 80 literacy coaches to 182 school districts struggling the most with proficiency. These coaches spend a few days a week  assisting teachers. Recently, the department announced

$3 million for summer reading grants in 24 districts to help struggling readers.

Since 2014, the MDE has offered professional development to more than 13,000 teachers on the essentials of teaching reading and spelling, Wells said.

• • •

All three districts point to common themes when asked to identify why students are failing, including the lack of parental involvement.

Roshunda Young, instructional specialist in the Clarksdale district, said it’s difficult to get parents involved early.

“You have to remember in our demographic, a lot of those parents are working two or three jobs,” she said.

Jefferson County’s unemployment rate, 10.9 percent, is the highest in the state. Superintendent Adrian Hammitte says that causes many parents to look for work elsewhere and makes engagement difficult. More than one-third of the residents in the county live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data, and the 1,100-student district is 100 percent free and reduced lunch.

“The reality is a lot of our kids, they don’t have that support that they really need at home,” Hammitte said. “As I told all of our administrators, we’re not going to make any excuses — we have them long enough to get them where they need to be — but it doesn’t hurt to have that outside support.”

The district is hosting parent town halls this summer to try to increase parent involvement.

Hammitte said he is optimistic the students receiving remediation this summer can pass the test. He’s also realistic; the district is working with parents to take away the stigma of being held back.

“The goal is to make sure you’re at grade level,” Hammitte said. “If you’re held back but we can get you at grade level, there are opportunities for you to be successful in life.”

• • •

In Jefferson County, nearly half of all third graders passed the test on the first try. To remediate those who did not, the district launched its literacy camp June 3. From roughly 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., students practiced reading comprehension and vocabulary skills.

In the past, whether a child gets promoted to the next grade “has been kind of subjective,” Hammitte said, meaning the decision was left to the teacher. “Moving forward, we want to make sure that we’re very clear about meeting mastery,” to move on, he said.

Students who attend the literacy camp to prepare for the test are also participating in the district’s summer reading institute. The children are registered with the local library and challenged to read as many books as they can during the summer break. When the school year begins, the district will also build an additional 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading time into the schedule.

Similar to Jefferson County, the Delta districts created reading programs for students to get additional remediation before they retest. In both districts, students were bused in every morning around 8 a.m. at their schools, leaving by noon. Teachers in both districts focused on vocabulary, foundational skills, fluency and comprehension.

This is the first year Coahoma County established this reading academy to target third- and second-graders who are struggling. There were four teachers with no more than 11 students in a class.

“It’s driven by the students’ needs, and so we can focus on exactly what they need,” said LaTasha Turner, curriculum and testing coordinator in the Coahoma schools.

Clarksdale Municipal hosts literacy programs every summer.

Students had no problems answering questions when a passage was read to them, so they don’t have a problem with comprehension, Matthews said.

“Independent reading is where they struggle the most,” said Rasheda Barksdale, consultant for the reading program in Clarksdale. “They get frustrated.”

• • •

In all three districts, educators agreed that it’s important to set a high bar for students. They also contemplate if this level of accountability is the best method for students at this age.

Turner suggested a growth model could be beneficial.

“All children are never going to be in the same performance range, but we’re asking them to get to a three, four or five. So you’re automatically going to have some students who are always going to be behind because by nature some children are going to struggle,” Turner said.

It’s also a challenge to get third graders to understand the magnitude of the test.

“No matter what, they’re still third graders, and that’s a lot right now,” Turner said. “Thinking about us adults trying to take the ACT or the Praxis, that’s what this is for third graders.”

Technically, a student who fails all three exams will be held back, but there are “good cause exemptions” for those with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities and students receiving intensive remediation.

Last year, an MDE report said 1,398 students failed their retests, but due to good cause exemptions, only 517 were held back.

“We understand the mentality is to continue to improve and continue to close the education gaps, but at the same time we have to be cognizant of the fact that these are lives that we are affecting and these are kids who are basically 9 years old,” Jefferson County Elementary School Principal LaRondrial Barnes said. “There’s a lot that we’re putting on their plate in terms of how it will affect them in the long term.”

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