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Mississippi falls short of an eighth-grade literacy miracle

Much has been made nationally of Mississippi’s improvement in fourth-grade reading scores. 

Whether being celebrated or scrutinized, attention has been squarely focused on elementary students and their reading instruction. Mississippi students and educators have closed the gap and reached the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This growth can be attributed to several factors, but chief among them is a 2013 state law that created a more robust infrastructure around helping children learn to read and holding them back at the end of third grade if they didn’t hit a certain benchmark.

But this national test also measures students again in eighth grade. The gap between the national average and Mississippi’s eighth-grade reading score has gotten smaller over the last decade, but it hasn’t closed at the rate of fourth-grade reading. 

State leaders are paying attention. 

“Some of our challenge points are eighth-grade reading,” Interim State Superintendent Ray Morgigno said when presenting an annual report at the Jan. 18 State Board of Education meeting.

Morgigno then pointed to the pilot programs underway around the state to expand Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading strategies up to the middle school level. One is being operated by the Mississippi Department of Education in conjunction with a regional arm of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Another one of these pilots, the Mississippi Reading Clinic, is a “legacy project of the Barksdale Reading Institute” according to its website. The Barksdale Reading Institute led some early conversations around literacy reform in Mississippi by defining the problem and testing out solutions that eventually became the basis of the 2013 state law.

Kelly Butler, former CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, said a unique approach to middle school literacy is necessary because instruction shifts in fourth grade from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This means the curriculum no longer focuses on direct instruction in decoding words, instead having students read passages to learn new concepts. For students who may have passed the third-grade test but are still not strong readers, this can be a particularly challenging transition. 

To address this, both pilots are training subject area teachers in upper grades on literacy instruction and methods to incorporate it in their classrooms. Butler said they’re trying to create a paradigm shift that “Everybody is a literacy teacher – this is what it looks like in K-3 and this is what it looks like in 4-8.”

The state partnership with the federal education department is focused on three school districts: Canton, Columbus and Laurel. 

In Laurel, the District ELA Coordinator Kristin Walters said she’s glad to be participating in the pilot program because it “adds purpose and validity” to strategies she was already trying to implement in the district. 

Walters said the approach used in the program employs a research-based practice guide, instructing teachers to first lead students in a discussion on the topic of the text, preview new vocabulary words before encountering them, annotate passages in a manner specific to its subject and structure, and review their annotations with another student. 

“It’s a routine that is just a very structured way to teach the text and have students engage deeply with the text,” Walters said. 

Walters said the district curriculum leads for each subject area have been the point people for making sure teachers are implementing the new strategy. Walters said it’s too early to have definitive results for the program, which is in its second year, but added that the district’s mid-year benchmark testing scores for science and English are both up over last year. 

‘To me, it’s important that we as a state and as a district, that we are focusing on those adolescent readers and they’re not just getting lost in the cracks just because they’re not in elementary school anymore,” she said. 

The partnership also has a second element focusing on training middle school interventionists. Walters said older students who are struggling to read have different needs, in part because students have developed coping mechanisms like skipping words and guessing to get by. For these students, it’s important to help them access the meaning of more complex words without taking it back to the ABCs and talking down to them.

Butler said she believes the Legislature needs to fund middle school interventionists statewide if the state wants to see eighth-grade reading scores improve. 

Leaders at the Mississippi Department of Education are also interested in scaling up their middle school literacy work but don’t have the funding to do so. Kristen Wynn, MDE’s state literacy director, said the department has already developed a model policy for middle-school literacy improvements but legislative funding only applies to K-3 efforts. If additional funding were made available, the model policy would include teacher training and interventionists in upper grades, similar to the 2013 law without a “gate” assessment. 

“We (sic) are well aware that some kids fall through the cracks and have difficulties when we’re moving in that middle school space,” Wynn said. “Kids in middle school still have phonics gaps and so we still have to equip teachers with what they need to fill those holes and to close those gaps.”

READ MORE: Mississippi’s ‘reading miracle’ has been out of reach for some schools

READ MORE: How many students are retained by the ‘third-grade gate’? No one knows

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