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3rd grade gate test
In this April 14, 2015 photograph, third grade students in Stephanie Slayter’s class at Cherokee Elementary School in Pascagoula, Miss., wait for teachers to pick up computers after completing a computerized 50-question multiple choice third-grade reading test. Across Mississippi, 38,000 third graders, their parents and teachers are waiting to find out whether they’ll be moving on to fourth grade. Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Amy

JACKSON, Miss. – Results of the new third-grade reading test announced Thursday that aimed to make it tougher for students to advance if they don’t read at grade level could mean 15 percent of the test-takers will repeat third grade.

Some 38,000 public school students took the Third-Grade Reading Summative Assessment, widely known as the “third-grade gate,” created under state law to address lagging reading skills and prevent the practice of “social promotions.”

The passing benchmark of 926, announced at a Mississippi Board of Education meeting, has been eagerly awaited by school communities since the test was given last month. The meeting was well attended, drawing about 60 people interested in the final test results.

“Quite frankly I’m a little surprised that the failure rate is not higher,” said Board member, Rosemary Aultman. “I think this a clarion call to the communities and parents.”

“These scores really should come as no surprise. Teachers have been monitoring progress faithfully all year long.”

The computerized 50-question, multiple choice test took about an hour to complete. It was an adaptive test that grew more difficult with each correct question the student answered.

Students who didn’t pass the test will have two more opportunities to pass later this month and again over the summer break. There are exemptions for some students including those with serious learning disabilities or those learning English for fewer than two years.

Last year, about 5,000 third-graders scored below proficient on another reading test but were not held back because there was no law in place requiring it. But this year the Literacy Based Promotion Act passed by state lawmakers in 2013 that created the test, kicked in. It aimed to measure “how well Mississippi third graders perform in terms of the Reading standards that are part of the English Language Arts (ELA) standards,” part of the Mississippi College and Career Ready Standards, formerly known as Common Core.

Related: Testing gives third-graders upset stomachs, tears and even fevers

The third-grade gate exam has been a controversial topic in Mississippi. Some say that holding students back will only hurt them.

“It’s very important that kids who move on to fourth grade are ready,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, an advocacy group for public schools. “But we also know that research shows that retention does not improve achievement. It only helps if children get something very, very different when they repeat the grade.”

Others say the test is needed to end social promotion and ensure students will be prepared for college and careers by the time they graduate. This year, legislators proposed an amendment that would have postponed the consequences of third-grade gate for one year. That measure, however, failed.

Educators, meanwhile, have been kept largely in the dark about the test.

Earlier this year, the state’s Department of Education released sample materials and a “blueprint” to help educators get students ready for the exam, which included examples of the different types of questions students could expect to see. But when students took the literacy test for the first time in April, the state had yet to set a passing score. Some say it’s unfair to hold back students this year, because they weren’t told ahead of time the passing score would be, and that made preparation difficult.

“The unknown is always difficult,” said Tammy Fairburn, superintendent of the Lawrence County School District.”It has been a challenge but we’ve used the resources that were provided by MDE (Mississippi Department of Education) and we’ve worked tirelessly to prepare our students”

A standard setting committee met earlier this week to determine a suggested passing score. If students fall below the score, they cannot be promoted to the fourth grade.

The committee was made up of 24 community members, school administrators and Mississippi educators with expertise in third and fourth grade reading.

Their recommendation for a passing score was presented to the board by Chris Domaleski, senior associate for the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment. The board approved the recommended score of 926, which represents the lowest achievement level possible for a student to be promoted to the next grade.

Domaleski said with this score, an estimated 85 percent will be promoted.

State superintendent Carey Wright said she was not surprised by the estimation because it is consistent with the percentage of students who did not perform at a passing level on similar tests in the past.

“These scores really should come as no surprise,” she said. “Teachers have been monitoring progress faithfully all year long. “

For years, Mississippi’s students have lagged behind their peers on national reading exams. On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 21 percent of Mississippi’s fourth-graders scored at or above proficient, compared to 34 percent nationwide. On the state’s 2014 year-end reading exam, only about half of the state’s third-graders scored proficient or advanced.

Nationwide, at least a dozen states, including Ohio and Tennessee, require students to repeat third grade if they are not reading on grade level. Some research has found that students are up to four times more likely to drop out of school if they are unable to read by third grade.

Test data will be released by the Mississippi Department of Education Friday at 10 a.m.

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