- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - More Mississippi third-graders could be in danger of flunking for low reading skills if a bill passed by a House committee Tuesday becomes law.

House Bill 51 would require third-grade students to score above the two lowest scoring tiers on a state test - not just clear the lowest “minimal” level to reach basic reading levels, as is now required - to advance to fourth grade. The higher requirement would begin for current kindergartners, who will be third-graders in spring 2019.

The bill moves to the full House for more debate.

State Superintendent Carey Wright has said she wants to raise the required score because students must now score only at a basic level, meaning some can advance without reading proficiently.

“All the department is asking us to do is push that bar up a little bit, not a lot,” House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon said.

At least 92 percent of third-graders scored at or above the basic level required after retests last spring, and local districts may have promoted additional students to fourth grade using legal exemptions.

Much of Tuesday’s debate centered on questions about how many students might be in danger of failing if the standard is raised.

“There’s no way to know that,” Moore said.

However, scores from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of Colleges and Careers test given to Mississippi third-graders last spring suggest the number in danger of scoring in the lowest two tiers could be about 35 percent. The PARCC test was only given last spring, and Mississippi is adopting a new test this year and must still set scoring expectations. However, the new Mississippi Assessment of Progress will be graded on five levels like the PARCC test and is supposed to be roughly equivalent academically. On the PARCC test, 11 percent of third-graders scored at the lowest level, and 24 percent scored at the second-lowest level.

Gov. Phil Bryant has repeatedly hailed the third-grade reading law as a success, and Moore echoed that praise Tuesday, saying he was confident schools could raise academic achievement and that fears of large numbers of failing students are overblown.

“The districts went out and starting doing what they needed to do,” Moore said of last year’s performance, the first year the requirement was in place.

Some lawmakers questioned whether one year really proved the program works, though. Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven, said six principals he spoke to oppose the increase.

“We don’t have sufficient data at this point on the results of the current program,” Hopkins said, seeking a year’s delay.

Rep. Carl Mickens, D-Brooksville, said he was worried that districts don’t have enough money.

“A lot of kids don’t even have school books to take home,” Mickens said. “Will money be put into place to achieve these higher standards?”

Moore said lawmakers had increased funding in recent years by $300 million. However, lawmakers have yet to reach the level of funding demanded by Mississippi’s formula and have declined Bryant’s requests to spend more on reading coaches. Currently, there are 86 state-paid coaches and supervisors statewide, although many districts have hired their own employees to try to improve reading instruction.

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Online: House Bill 51: http://bit.ly/1omQY0k

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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This story has been corrected to show the requirement would begin in spring 2019, not spring 2018, and that the share of students scoring low is 35 percent, not 24 percent.

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