JACKSON, Miss. — Each year, more than 30,000 third graders in Mississippi gear up to take a statewide reading test, part of the state’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act.
A little more than 75 percent of students passed the test on their first try earlier this year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. They are among the thousands of children who started fourth grade this month.
But for Issiah and Tyler, two 9-year-olds from Jackson who did not pass the reading test either the first time around or during a retest, the question of what grade they would attend was a little more complicated.
“Tyler did not enjoy reading at first. So, when he took the test the first time, he got tired of reading and just started clicking answers so he could finish,” said his mother, Kawanda Caldwell. Tyler did better when he took the test a second time, but still needed to work on his reading speed and comprehension, his mother said.
Tynisha Sumrall’s son, Issiah, who was diagnosed with autism, also took the test two times. Sumrall said she wishes her child’s school had done more to prepare him.
“Going into this test, I knew Issiah would need help because he has autism and some things are harder for him to process — instead of him writing the answers, he uses illustrations,” she said.
That need for help is where organizations like the Mississippi Children’s Museum step in.
The state allows students to take the test up to three times before school officials decide if they can be promoted to fourth grade with a “good cause exemption,” or held back for a year of intensive reading instruction. Two of those tests are given during the school year. The second retest is offered during the summer break.
To prepare students for that last chance to take the test, the museum, in partnership with Jackson Public Schools, held a Read to Succeed summer reading camp this June — the eighth time it has held the now-annual event.
The camp was held in the large open room of the museum’s education center, where excited children, separated into groups, called out answers to their teachers. Some of their activities included read-alouds, vocabulary reviews, and identifying parts of speech, such as verbs and adverbs.
One of the teachers was Connie Williams-May, a veteran reading and language arts teacher with Jackson Public Schools.
“I transitioned from the corporate world to use my talents to cater to students who looked like my children — who were receiving their education in that school district at the time,” said Williams-May, who is Black. During the camp, she uses all of her teaching skills to keep the students focused.
“I try to keep my students engaged in ways that they will remember,” Williams-May said. “The first day, we worked on ‘multiple meaning words’, so I brought them M&Ms candy. I might sing, rap or even do a cartwheel if that’s what it would take for them to comprehend what I teach.”
Mississippi’s elementary reading policies, signed into law in 2013, have drawn national attention. They include improved literacy training for elementary teachers and reading coaches for the state’s lowest performing elementary schools.
For decades, the state trailed the national average in reading scores, but by 2022, 63 percent of the state’s fourth graders scored at or above basic in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. That beat the national average of 61 percent last year.
But one of the more controversial aspects of the state’s reading initiative is its retention policy. In Jackson, a third of students did not pass the test during its initial administration this spring, compared to about 24 percent statewide.
Monique Ealey, the director of programs and education for the Mississippi Children’s Museum, co-founder of the reading camp, and a former first grade teacher, said that as a teacher in Jackson’s Public Schools she saw the struggles children experienced when the mandatory reading test started in 2015.
Ealey and other educators created the curriculum for the camp, aligning their materials with the state’s standards. Since the program began, the camp has added an interventionist and five additional teachers/support staff to provide more one-on-one help for the students, Ealey said. The students are also provided resources like take-home literacy kits which cover comprehension, vocabulary, and phonics. All the teachers in the museum’s program are licensed and have at least five years’ experience.
“After noticing the low scores and the number of students who didn’t pass, we as educators knew we had to come together and help,” Ealey said. “One way of doing that was partnering with our local school district and bringing in some of those third graders and just seeing if having them here for a week would make a difference,” she said.
In early 2020, Mississippi’s students switched to virtual learning and state testing was paused. That summer, the museum camp changed its focus from third-grade reading and became an in-person academic camp for reading and math for K-5 Jackson students.
“Even during the pandemic when the test wasn’t mandatory, we still held the camp, just in a different way,” Ealey said.
This year, students were referred to the summer camp by the principals of three nearby Jackson elementary schools — Boyd, Spann and McLeod.
The children chosen to participate were in need of just a little boost, said Delacy Bridges, the principal of McLeod Elementary, which both Tyler and Issiah attend.
“We wish that we could help and send all students; however, we don’t have that ability at the moment,” said Bridges.
Bridges said the reading coaches at her school have assisted teachers with hands-on tools and resources to improve their teaching abilities.
“The coaches that I had the privilege of working with have been very personable and have come into the school and have gone all in with our scholars and staff — they’re in the fight with us,” Bridges said. “They’ll come into the classrooms and teach or co-teach, perform pull-outs with teachers for specific training, and/or teach whole groups for the greater good.”
But, even with extra assistance through the school and through programs like the museum camp, some students will still be retained. Bridges said retaining students should not be looked at as failure but as an opportunity for them to excel and succeed.
“Retention gives us educators an opportunity to see what are the true deficits to fill those gaps,” she said. “Obviously sending them to the next grade level while they’re underperforming can harm the child and hinder their growth, and we don’t want that,” she said.
Recent research suggests that Mississippi students who were held back end up outperforming their peers in language arts in later grades.
Researchers Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Marcus Winters examined the progress of third graders in 2014-15 who came close to passing the test but fell short and were retained, and compared this to students that year who barely passed the test and were permitted to move on to fourth grade.
By sixth grade, the retained students scored higher on reading tests than their classmates who had just managed to pass the test. Being retained had no effect on absentee rates and retained students were no more likely than their non-retained peers to be referred for special education.
The retained students, however, showed no improvement in math. Even though the retention policy is intended to boost student literacy, Winters said that studies in other states have shown retained students improve in both areas, so the fact that Mississippi students did not is worth further research.
“Often kids that are struggling in reading are kids who are really struggling in math,” Winters said. “We’d expect to see some positive effects in math.”
The results of the study suggest that retention can be a tool for boosting reading achievement, but it has to be considered in the context of other state efforts, Winters said. Even the prospect of retention may have effects that researchers are still working to measure, he said — for example, by prompting educators to work harder so that fewer children will get to the point where holding them back is a possibility.
“It’s important for people to keep in mind that this is one piece of a broader set of efforts,” Winters said.
Such efforts include initiatives like the reading camp, which both Tyler and Issiah found fun and educational, according to their mothers.
Each day after camp, Tyler showed his mom all the new skills he learned — especially on homework that included vocabulary and other language learning, she said.
“The camp helped grow his confidence and made learning fun for him. He learned how to break down words and their meanings and when he asked questions, he got immediate answers and encouragement,” Caldwell said.
The camp also helped Tyler with his testing anxiety, his mother said. He was less anxious and more confident ahead of the final exam.
“My son felt like he could ask questions without the embarrassment that can come from asking questions during school,” Caldwell said. “He gained his confidence back.”
Issiah’s mother said the teachers were considerate and adjusted the lessons to accommodate his autism.
“Issiah would get upset at little mistakes, but they were able to calm him down and help him to understand what he was doing wrong and they worked with him through that,” Sumrall said.
After the reading camp, both boys took the comprehensive exam one last time before the 2023-24 school year. Tyler passed the exam and started fourth grade August 7.
“We’re super excited for the new school year; he has developed new study skills, thanks to the reading camp. We’re praying for an awesome school year!” Caldwell said.
Issiah, on the other hand, fell just short of passing the test on his third try. His mother is still happy he attended the camp.
“I know he tried his best because it was only by a few points that he missed it,” Sumrall said. “We plan on making sure he has all the help he needs to succeed for this following school year.”
This story about Mississippi reading tests was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.