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3rd Grade Reading Gate is Reality in Mississippi
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Testing is underway in Mississippi to see if third graders across the state are able to read on grade level, as part of the state's new 3rd grade reading assessment. It was passed in 2013, by lawmakers as a way to raise the state's reading scores which have historically, been the lowest in the nation. MPB's Paul Boger looks at how schools have prepared for the test and what it could mean if students don't pass.

Third graders in Tyra Saucier’s class are going over their daily reading lesson. The Hawkins Elementary Teacher in Hattiesburg is one of hundreds of others across the state preparing their students for the Third Grade Reading Summative Assessment -- otherwise known as the third grade reading gate.

The test makes sure students are ready to move on the fourth grade, and hold them back if they are not. Kymyona Burk is the state literacy director at the Mississippi Department of Education

"The assessment will contain 50 multiple choice items," says Burk. "These items will range from phonics, vocabulary, those reading foundational skills and of course through text comprehension."

Around 40,000 students will take the exam. Of the 40,000, officials believe as many as 6,000 students could fail the exam. That number is based on the results of previous year’s assessments. Since 2013, lawmakers have appropriated more than $20 million to go towards improving reading scores and hiring literacy coaches. Shewonia Mercadel is one of the coaches for Jackson Public Schools.

"The main challenge is just a mind shift," Mercadel says. "If a child is reading a passage, instead of just marking A, B, C or D, the teacher has to now ask why.’Give me some evidence from the passage, cite that evidence, show me how you got that answer.' Implementing more writing into their lesson. So like I said the main problem is just changing the mindset. Really just changing the heart of teaching."

Yet, some public education advocacy groups say the state hasn't done enough to prepare students. The department of education has also only hired around 50 literacy coaches for the nearly 500 elementary schools in the state. Nancy Loome is with the Parent's Campaign.

"This bill was modeled after legislation in Florida that was very successful," says Loome. "They invested about a billion dollars in the first year. They put a reading coach in every single K-3 school. If the real goal is to make sure all children are reading on grade level, we need to put whatever resources that are required to make that happen."

Lawmakers argue that schools have had enough time and money to teach students how to read on level. Republican Representative John Moore of Brandon is the Chair of the House Education Committee.

"It's just requiring the school districts to do their job," Moore says. "If they're not teaching them to read by the 3rd grade then they need to look at how they're doing business. My question is, 'Why haven't you been teaching them all of these years."

Students who fail the assessment will get two more chances during the summer. If they cannot make the cut by the start of the next school year, they will be held back. Lakotra Anderson is the mother of third grader Grace Smith, a student at Jefferson County Elementary School.

"I don't think a test determines where a kid is actually at, because all kids are not test material," Anderson says. "I really don't think this test is going to tell us where that kid [is] at. I don't think that's going to happen."

Eight-year-old Grace is also concerned, but for different reasons.

"If I don't pass then I'm not going to the third... I'm not going to the fourth grade." says Grace.

"Is that a lot of pressure on you?"

"Yes, because I will miss my friends." 

Testing will continue through April 23. Parents should know the results of the exam by the end of the school year.

According to the data collected by the Center for Public Schools, students who are retained once are 50 percent more likely to drop out of school. If students are held back twice, it's a statistical guarantee that they won't make it to graduation.