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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Almost 6,000 Mississippi third-graders may not advance to the fourth grade, after the Mississippi Board of Education set a passing score on the state's third-grade reading test.
The board voted unanimously Thursday to adopt a score that means about 15 percent of the state's 38,000 third-graders didn't pass the April test administration of the 50-question computerized test.
Students who failed will get two more chances to take the test: one later this month and one during the summer. They must show a basic level of reading skill but don't have to reach national standards of proficiency.
"This is not a measure of proficiency, and I think the public should be very clear about this," state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said. Department of Education staff members said some students who pass will still need extra help in fourth grade.
Some students can be promoted even if they don't pass. Those include students learning English for fewer than two years, students with significant cognitive disabilities, special education students who have had two or more years of intervention and already flunked once, or any students with two or more years of intervention who have failed twice.
Wright said the total number of students held back won't be clear until August.
It's the first time the requirement to pass the test, enacted by the Legislature in 2013, will take effect. Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Bryant have said it's preferable to hold back students who can't read at a basic level to give them special attention. Some researchers disagree with that approach, though, saying failing a grade leads to higher dropout rates and the harm outweighs the benefit. Others support the plan but said Mississippi needed more time to prepare.
"I applaud the concept, but I think the process has been stampeded, and I'm not sure it's in the best interest of children," said board member Wayne Gann of Corinth.
Board member Johnny Franklin initially questioned whether the passing score had been held down to minimize failures but later said he was satisfied that didn't happen.
"What matters is giving these children a chance for success as adults," Franklin said.
The reading test was written for Mississippi only, but national tests show Mississippi students have among the lowest achievement levels. Florida, for example, initially retained 19 percent of third-graders last year and ultimately held back 7 percent after retests and exemptions.
On the state's old standardized tests, about 6,500 students failed to reach even basic achievement levels last year, and minimal achievement levels had ranged between 13 percent and 17 percent in recent years.
"The bar was set at the level the law described," Wright said. "These scores should really come as no surprise. Teachers have been monitoring progress all year long."
Many districts plan summer school programs to help struggling students cross the bar on that third test administration. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation will give $2.4 million to help improve teachers' skills as well as to provide some tutoring in summer schools.
Mississippi has spent more than $38 million to help train teachers in advance of the mandate taking effect. The state has 53 reading coaches in 78 schools this year, and some districts have hired their own coaches. This fall, the state plans 78 coaches in 125 schools.
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