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For decades, Mississippi students have struggled to keep up with their peers on the Nation’s Report Card, but this week the state has news to celebrate.

Mississippi’s fourth graders scored at the nation’s average on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam — a first in the state’s history, according to the latest results released on Wednesday. State officials say the gains are evidence that the state’s controversial Literacy Based Promotion Act is helping.

Historical first – Mississippi students score at the national average on the Nation’s Report Card

Mississippi is one of 16 states requiring students to show a certain level of reading ability in order to pass third grade, although some research suggests that holding students back can hurt rather than help them. More than 3,300 Mississippi students, or about 10 percent of last year’s third graders, have to repeat third grade this year, more than double the number of third graders retained the year before, according to the state Department of Education.

Related: How Mississippi made some of the biggest leaps in national test scores

As in other states, the goal of the policy is to boost childhood literacy. Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration’s relied on research showing that being unable to read on grade level by third grade hurts kids while they’re in school and beyond. Since 2015, Mississippi has used the statewide standardized reading test to determine whether children should be promoted to fourth grade.

“With a really big number of kids we’re trying to get as much one-on-one time as possible … More resources would give us more people to pull kids.”

Earlier this year, Mississippi made meeting the bar even tougher. State tests are graded according to one of five performance levels. In previous years, students scoring above the state’s lowest performance category or the minimal level could move on to fourth grade. Now, a student must demonstrate that they are approaching grade level expectations in order to achieve a passing score.

State officials may have reason to believe that raising the bar will pay off. Between 2011 and 2017, Mississippi’s fourth graders posted the second-largest improvement on the NAEP reading exam in the country. Over the past four years, the percentage of fourth, fifth and seventh grade students performing at a proficient or advanced level on the state’s English language arts exam has also increased.

It’s unclear how many of Mississippi’s third graders were held back solely because they failed the reading test; the state’s education agency doesn’t track the number of third graders retained for failing the test separately from those who were retained for other reasons. What we do know is that districts that reported higher failure rates on the reading exam also reported higher retention rates. (About 12 percent of the state’s third graders earned exemptions to move on to the fourth grade.)

Related: This Mississippi district says these four strategies are helping their struggling readers

A number of studies have found holding students back can have a negative impact on their motivation to learn and increase their chances of dropping out. But a 2017 study of students in Florida found that those who were retained in third grade were neither more nor less likely to drop out of high school, though the study’s author cautioned, “that we are not saying that the students who were retained in Florida were clearly better off as a result.”

Mississippi is one of 16 states requiring students to show a certain level of reading ability in order to pass third grade.

The Bryant administration has taken the stance that schools can ensure positive outcomes for retained students by making changes to the regular curriculum for students who are held back. The state requires districts to provide 90 minutes each day of intensive help to students repeating the third grade, for instance.

The Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District held back more than 30 percent of its third graders this year. Iris Hurt, who oversees elementary education for the Delta district, said schools there now provide the extended literacy block for all third graders. Teachers also devote part of their planning period to pulling out students who need an extra boost.

But Hurt said it’s still hard to give children as much individual attention as teachers would like. “With a really big number of kids we’re trying to get as much one-on-one time as possible,” she said. “More resources would give us more people to pull kids.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about childhood literacy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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