October 23, 2020

Opinion: Holding students to higher standards beneficial, but only if good foundation is set

Mississippi has made it more challenging for its students to advance to fourth-grade.

Since 2015, the state’s third-grade students have been required to pass a reading test in order to be promoted. Starting this year, they must achieve an even higher score to pass the test.

The so-called third-grade reading gate was modeled on a program from Florida. The idea is that after third grade, students begin reading for comprehension, rather than learning to read. Thus, it is a disservice to promote students to fourth-grade until they have a strong foundation in reading or they will be overwhelmed by the material and fall further behind.

For the test’s first four years, students had to reach the second, or basic, level on a state test scored in five tiers. This year, they must reach the third level. Those who fail will still have two chances to retake the test, and some students can qualify for good-cause exemptions for various reasons.

We salute Mississippi for raising the bar and holding its students to high expectations. One of the fruits of the law has been an increased emphasis on reading instruction, including more state support and training for teachers. Literacy is the building block to a successful education, and Mississippi is right to focus on it.

That said, if Mississippi is going to have high standards, it must also place a proper emphasis on the foundational basics.

That starts with a more robust state-funded pre-K system that ensures students are ready to learn when they start school. Research has shown that the first four years of a child’s life are the most important for his or her brain development. It also has shown children in lower-income households tend to hear millions fewer words in their first four years than their more affluent peers. This discrepancy creates a language gap that is very difficult to close as the children move through school.

If Mississippi is expecting all of its students to be reading at a high level by the end of third grade – and it should have this expectation – it also must do its part to ensure they are prepared when they begin kindergarten.

The state must also drill down and ensure it is teaching the basics during the primary school years, making sure its curriculum is extremely focused on the foundational skills of reading, reading comprehension, core mathematics and writing.

More than 35,000 Mississippi third-graders took the reading test last week, the first group to be held to the new higher standard. When their results come back, the state must carefully study that data to determine where gaps exist and where it needs to invest more money for reading coaches or teacher training.

Mississippi students will benefit from being held to a high standard, but only if the right foundations are in place.

This editorial was originally published in The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal newspaper in Tupelo.