The good news is that another 3,000 third graders have gotten a high enough score on Mississippi’s reading test to advance to the fourth grade.
The bad news is that, short of a miracle on their last-chance test this summer, up to 5,000 of Mississippi’s 35,000 third graders will fall short and be held back for the coming year. Most likely, between 11 and 14% of the state’s third graders will not move ahead.
Last year only 6% of them had to repeat.
The larger number of third graders who must repeat next year is definitely a concern. The fear is that over time, the third grade will become clogged with kids struggling to pass the test. Plus we don’t yet know whether making them repeat third grade will backfire with more dropouts rather than more achievement.
The reason for the increase in the failure rate, though, is a good one: The state raised the bar of the reading test’s passing grade from the watered-down standard it used before.
In prior years, students who reached the second-lowest of five ability levels were considered to have passed the test. This year, students had to get to the third level to pass. In report card talk, they had to get a C this year, while a D was enough in prior years.
If reading, writing and comprehension are important — and all studies say it is vital that children master these abilities as they move through school and into adulthood — then Mississippi is in principle doing the right thing by requiring higher scores to advance to fourth grade.
There will certainly be some short-term pain in the form of larger third grade classes. More parents will be upset that their children are being held back, but any teacher or principal who gets a complaint about it should tell the parents to help their kids learn more about reading and writing.
The bigger challenge is how to reduce the number of third graders that get held back. The answer is pretty simple: The state and its school districts must invest more money in trained employees who can help.
If it’s correct that 11 to 14% of this year’s third graders will be retained, it’s reasonable to set a long-range goal of cutting that number in half, to the 5 to 7% range.