Reading test failures were easily predictable

By TIM KALICH,

No one should be shocked by the high failure rate on Mississippi’s third-grade reading test this year.

The only thing shocking is that the state’s educators did not better prepare the public for what they knew was coming.

When the so-called “third-grade reading gate” to stop social promotion was first established in this state, it was more like a speed bump than a hurdle. That’s because students only had to demonstrate the most modest reading skills in order to pass.

But when the law was amended in 2016 to make the assessment more honest — by raising, starting in 2019, the passing score from 2 to 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 — the most basic analysis could have predicted what would transpire.

Thousands of third-graders — including potentially half of all of those enrolled in the Delta and other high-poverty areas of the state — would have to repeat third grade.

MDE, and supposedly most school superintendents, knew in 2016 that the failure rate would triple if students had to score a 3, instead of a 2. Although the schools might see incremental improvement during the three years they had to get ready for the higher bar, there was no legitimate way that they were going to avoid a dramatic increase in the failure rate.

And that’s exactly what happened.

According to the results released last week, one of four third-graders statewide failed the test on the first attempt. Those who came up short got tested again earlier this month, and if they still are failing, they will have one more opportunity this summer. These extra chances, plus some exemptions from the test’s requirements for special education students and immigrant children still learning English as a second language, might cut the failure numbers by half, but don’t expect more than that.

Best-case scenario is that on average the public schools in Leflore and Carroll counties will have at least 25 percent of this year’s third-graders showing up in third-grade classrooms again next year. At some schools, it will be even more than that. If the districts have a plan for dealing with this surplus of third-graders and shortage of fourth-graders, they haven’t explained it.

Those who have been most vocal about the high failure rate have blamed the supposed unfairness of the test.  They argue classroom grades, not a standardized test, should determine whether a student is ready to be promoted to the next grade.

That would be true if all teachers operated with the same high standards. They don’t. Some give students — not just in third-grade reading but in other subjects and other grades — higher marks than the students deserve.  That’s because the teachers are not particularly competent, or because they have principals and parents pressuring them to pass a high percentage of students, or because they have dumbed down their instruction to the lowest common denominator.

Third-grade gate is intended to discourage that. We’re about to see how well it works, and whether the state’s political and education leadership have the stomach to see it through.

There is one positive, though, to this poor reading performance. At least Gov. Phil Bryant and his potential successor, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, can stop bragging about the great results the Republican education reforms have produced.