/As thousands of third-graders prep for reading retest, districts and literacy coaches work to remove barriers

As thousands of third-graders prep for reading retest, districts and literacy coaches work to remove barriers

Nonprofit Mississippi News FAYETTE — Shameka’s classroom buzzed on Monday morning as eleven students read a passage about termites, bees and ants. Students were reading a handout that would help them understand comprehension questions. Woods helped the students to understand a question that asked them to read the text in order to identify the similarities between insects. Woods asked, “OK, what do you think the word similar means?” The student offered a tentative answer and raised his hand. “Alike?” “OK. We want to find out how worker ants are related to worker bees. Where do I look in my passage for this answer? “What subheading?” A student shouted a response, but quickly lost track of his reply because he wasn’t reading from the paper. “You’re guessing, Justin!” Woods said. Woods said, “Look at this passage.” Woods is just one of many literacy coaches in the state helping third-graders prepare for the final chance to pass a critical reading exam. If they fail, they may have to repeat the grade. Mississippi Today spoke to literacy experts from the states to learn more about the challenges students face when trying to pass the third grade gate exam. The Mississippi Department of Education announced that 8,941 students failed to pass the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program for English Language Arts, also known as the “third grade gate.” This test is part of the Literacy Based Promotion Act which requires all third-graders in the state to pass a reading exam to determine if they are ready to progress to the fourth grade. This year, the bar for passing was higher. Students must score a minimum of three points on a five-point scale. In previous years, the passing score was only two. According to the department, 74.5 percent of students achieved this mark in the current year. Students who failed to pass the first attempt had two additional attempts during the summer. The department reported that the pass rate had jumped to 82% after the May 2nd attempt. This is a significant improvement but it means that the remaining 6,000 students still have one chance or they can be stopped. State officials have praised the law as a policy that will ultimately increase student opportunities. Officials at the state level say that the Literacy Based Promotion Act acts more as a preventative and intervention tool than it does to keep students in school. Kristen Wells is the assistant state literacy coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Education. “Third grade, that critical grade level,” she said. Wells stated that reading opens up many doors and possibilities. This affects the economic development in our communities and our workforce in Mississippi. It goes beyond the third-grade assessment. The last retest window for exam passing is June 24-July 12. Districts are working hard to ensure that their students pass the exam on time. They are facing many obstacles, including teacher shortages and low parental engagement, language gaps, and vision problems. The Mississippi Optometric Association (Mississippi Vision Association) will again offer free eye exams to children who failed the test. They also provide free glasses for students who need them. School officials in Mississippi Delta have to coach students with testing anxiety and retrain new teachers. High teacher turnover is another factor that contributes to kids’ failures in the third grade reading proficiency assessment. The pass rate for Coahoma County’s district of approximately 1,300 students was 63 percent on its first attempt at the test. 28 of the 128 students who took the assessment had to take it again. After looking into the reasons they scored so low in third grade, we discovered that they had an alternate teacher all year. They had a substitute teacher for the entire year in second grade. At a June 12 school board meeting, Ilean Richards, interim Superintendent of Coahoma County Schools, stated that they couldn’t function when they reached third grade. Clarksdale Municipal Schools District has slightly more students, and also faces a teacher shortage. Toya Matthews is the Clarksdale Schools Assistant Superintendent. She echoed Richards’ sentiments and said that there was turnover in all schools except one. 90 third-graders must pass the final retest. Only 40.4 percent of students passed the test on their first attempt. As the teacher shortage in the Delta is at its highest, districts across the state are trying to find certified teachers for their classrooms. According to the MDE data, 19% of Clarksdale teachers weren’t certified last year. Matthews stated that while we are not making excuses, there is a story behind this number. Tenette Smith, MDE executivedirector of elementary education, and reading, told Mississippi Today that a good teacher is crucial and important to student success. Smith acknowledged that not all districts are able to hire and keep qualified teachers. She explained that a school may have students or groups of students who have not had a teacher certified from kindergarten through third grade. The state’s literacy coaches are working hard to close the gap. Wells stated, “If you are in front of the children, we’re willing to take the time and build your capacity. We’ll give you everything, all resources we can.” “Every teacher can be a reading teacher regardless of whether or not you choose to become one.” 80 literacy coaches have been assigned by the state to 182 districts that are struggling with proficiency. The coaches are there for a few days each week to assist teachers with instruction and modeling lessons. The department recently announced $3 million in summer reading grants for 24 districts in order to assist struggling readers. Wells stated that the MDE has provided professional development for more than 13,000 teachers in teaching spelling and reading since 2014. Participating in the process Roshunda Young is an instructional specialist in Clarksdale. She said that it can be difficult to get parents involved at the beginning. She said that attendance at the district-led parent nights and the pep rally were low. She said that low participation is due to infrequent school visits, a busy work schedule, and lack of communication. Young stated that many parents in this demographic have multiple jobs. It’s all the different factors that go into providing support for students. But understanding that parents are trying to do that in homes also helps. Jefferson County is facing similar challenges. The rural county’s unemployment rate of 10.9 percent is the highest in the state. Superintendent Adrian Hammitte said that this causes many parents to leave the area and makes it difficult for them to engage. According to U.S. Census data more than a third of the county’s residents live in poverty. The 1100-student district provides 100 percent free or reduced lunches. Hammitte stated that many of the children in the district don’t receive the support they need at home. “As I explained to all of our administrators, we are not going to make excuses. We have them long enough for them to get there, but it doesn’t hurt to have that external support.” To increase parental involvement, the district will host parent town halls. Hammitte stated that it is crucial because “we need to get buy-in” from parents. Hammitte said that despite the challenges facing the district, he believes the remediation program will help students pass the test. Hammitte is also realistic. The district works with parents to remove the stigma of being held back. Hammitte stated that the goal was to get you at grade level. “If you are held back, but we can get to grade level, there is opportunity for you to succeed in life.” Nearly half of third-graders in Jefferson County passed the test the first time they attempted it. The district opened a literacy camp in June to help those who failed. Students practiced vocabulary and reading comprehension from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. He said that 26 students needed to take the third test, but only 21 of them came consistently. Yashica Suddeth, a third-grade teacher, said that students have difficulty understanding the main idea and point of view of stories. Suddeth led her students through a reading passage on a Monday morning in June just like Woods, the literacy coach. Suddeth was wearing a T-shirt with the image of a black girl in big puffy ponytails and holding a book called Ready! Set! READ! READ! As students were preparing for the final retest, discussions like this took place across the district. LaRondrial Barnes, principal of Jefferson County Elementary School, stated that the school’s main challenge is resolving deficits. Many of these were caused early in a child’s education. Hammitte also agreed, telling Mississippi Today that this is the most serious problem facing the school district. Hammitte stated that too many students reach the third grade below grade level. It’s difficult for teachers to get these students up to grade level. Hammitte stated that in the past, a child’s promotion to the next grade was “kind of subjective.” This meant that the decision to promote a child to the next grade was up to the teacher. To move forward, he stated, “Moving Forward, we want to ensure that we are very clear about meeting mastery.” Hammitte stated that while the state requires that the district have a plan for remediation, there are still opportunities to innovate. The literacy camp prepares students for the test. Students also participate in the district’s Summer Reading Institute. Children are required to register with their local library in order to be challenged to read as many books during summer break as possible. Hammitte stated that the district will add 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading into their school year. The Delta districts have reading programs that students can use to help them with their remediation, similar to Jefferson County. Students were bused to their schools at 8 a.m. and left by noon. Although each program was different, both districts had the same focus: teachers focused on comprehension, vocabulary, and foundational skills. Coahoma County created this reading academy for struggling third- and second graders in the first year. To create a more intimate learning environment, there were only four teachers and no more than eleven students per class. It’s intentional. It is driven by students’ needs and allows us to focus on what they need,” LaTasha Turner (Coahoma Schools Curriculum and Testing Coordinator) said. Matthews stated that Clarksdale Municipal hosts literacy classes every summer, but not like Coahoma. This is an extension of the learning that takes place during the school year. Matthews stated that seven teachers work hard but it is difficult to get students across due to some foundational issues. Matthews stated that students were able to answer questions when the passage was read aloud to them. This means they have no problem understanding what Matthews is saying. Rasheda Barksdale is a consultant to the Clarksdale reading program. “Independent reading, they struggle the most.” Barksdale explained that students can get frustrated. She gave a worksheet with the passage “Peter Possum played Tricks” to her students on Thursday morning for their shared-reading. Some students were riveted on the text as Barksdale read aloud. Some students flipped through the pages, looked around and sat down at the desk. Barksdale asked ten questions to her students about the reading. Barksdale asked ten students questions about the reading. She said, “Underline trotted in the text.” It took several attempts before the classroom finally came up with the right answer. Barksdale said, “It means walking.” Write the word “walked beside trotted.” These connections are important. Minding the gap Students may also have a language gap, which can cause problems when taking the test. Young, the Clarksdale instructional specialist, stated that students who live in poverty have fewer vocabulary words. She said, “We don’t always sit down and say, ‘Oh, the teacher didn’t do what she or she was supposed to do.’ We recognize that there are other factors that contribute to what our student simply don’t have.” Smith with the MDE cited a recent instance where students were asked about subways. However, some misunderstood the question because they only have one experience with the word sandwich shop. She said that this can lead to problems, especially when it comes to a standard assessment. She said that this is something educators try to address early. Smith stated that kindergarten teachers talk with their students constantly to improve their oral language skills. “A couch and a sofa are two different things.” It can be difficult for some districts to ensure that students are available on test day. Turner stated that there are still children we haven’t reached… those babies will fail because they don’t know if it’s possible for them to pass the test. All three districts agreed that it was important to set high standards for students. They discussed whether this level of accountability was the best for students this age. Turner suggested that a growth model might be beneficial. “All children will never be in the same range of performance, but we ask them to reach a three-, four-, or five. Turner explained that there will always be some students who fall behind, because some children struggle by nature. It is also difficult to get third-graders to comprehend the importance of the test. Turner stated that no matter what, third-graders are still third-graders. That’s a lot of work right now. “Thinking about adults trying to take ACT or Praxis, that’s exactly what this is for the third-graders.” Barnes, Jefferson County Elementary principal said it’s almost as if he’s trying to get the third-graders think like 14-year-olds. Barnes stated that there is a shadow of failure over third-graders’ retention. Barnes said that while we do an intense job trying to ensure our children are aware of how important this test is before it gets too late, but third-graders have just taken their first standardized test in life. He is concerned about the possible consequences for students who don’t attain proficiency. Technically, a student will be disqualified if they fail all three exams. However, there are exceptions for students who have limited English proficiency or students who receive intensive remediation. An MDE report last year stated that 1,398 students failed retests. However, 517 students were exempted due to good cause. Barnes stated that while we understand that the goal is to improve the education system and close the gap, we must also be aware that these are children who are 9 years old. “There is a lot we are putting on their plates in terms of how it will impact them over the long-term.”
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