- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

MCCOMB, Miss. (AP) - Terra Brown said she’s worked hard to help her first-grade daughter make the grade in reading, but she feels like she’s getting nowhere.

“Fifty-seven, 10, 28, 65 - these are not just random numbers. These are grades from my first-grader,” Brown recently told South Pike School Board.

Though Brown said she takes all advice she is given and works many nights at home with her daughter, she is seeing little progress on her reading test scores.

Brown said she has worked tirelessly with her daughter’s teachers, Eva Gordon Lower Elementary principal Warren Banks, reading specialists and anyone else available to help her daughter improve her reading scores.

“At first my child was eager, she was enthusiastic and loved school,” Brown said. “Over the summer, she couldn’t wait to come to first grade. Right now, she’s mostly depressed, she’s crying, she’s angry. She has a hatred toward school, and she’s only in the first grade.”



Brown’s situation is indicative of a much larger problem at South Pike.

With one campus of South Pike School District in danger of being taken over by the state, the focus for school officials has been to improve test scores across the board and save Eva Gordon Lower Elementary before it’s too late.

Curriculum director Susan McGehee said the key lies in improving elementary students’ reading scores.

She is proposing adding a new dimension to South Pike’s promotion policy that would retain children at the end of every year if they are not close enough to reading at grade level.

McGehee came prepared with an array of elementary students’ reading class averages compared to their reading equivalency charted on STAR Reading exams that shows their reading grade level, and she told the board that the scores do not match.

“I think the point we’re trying to make here is that there’s not a great deal of correlation between the actual reading grade that the student received at midterm and where they are actually in terms of their reading proficiency,” McGehee said.

The STAR Reading exam is a practice test that students take on the computer nine times a year to measure their progression and reading proficiency.

At Eva Gordon Lower Elementary School, no student in any grade received an A in reading at midterm. In one first-grade reading group, the highest student average is a 79, and that student is the only one in the class without a D or F.

What startled McGehee and school board members were the discrepancies between the average reading scores and students’ grade-level reading abilities.

Data for three first-grade reading classes revealed that no student is reading at grade level and the majority of the students are reading at least six months behind where they should be.

At Osyka Elementary, many of the students received A’s and B’s for midterm reading grades, yet most are reading six months or more behind grade level. One first-grader received a solid B average, but that same student’s STAR Reading test score was so low it did not register a score, meaning that student is at least a year and a half behind in reading.

“If a parent sees a B in reading, that parent is going to assume, and likely so, that student is on target, when in actuality that student is a year and a half behind already,” McGehee said. “Reading grades are very subjective. That’s one of the problems we have with it is that they are so subjective. Because of that, it’s extremely hard for parents to understand when a parent has a student who has a B in reading, and the parent sees that and believe that student is doing great.”

The Literacy Law, adopted last year in Mississippi, will take effect during the 2014-15 school year. It will require all third-graders to pass a reading test by Renaissance Learning - the same creators of the STAR Reading test - with a proficient score by the end of that school year.

McGehee is concerned the new law could cause problems when students get to third grade and are already a year or more behind in reading, so her proposal is to implement a similar test at the end of every grade level.

“We don’t want to get to the third grade and have 150 students in the class with 60 of them not reading proficiently and have to remain behind,” McGehee said. “We want to be proactive in what we’re doing.”

The proposed literary promotion policy would require students to meet or surpass a certain score on the STAR Reading test during that year. McGehee said her goal is to retain students as they start to fall behind instead of having a large group forced to repeat third grade and therefore increasing third-grade class sizes.

While McGehee said she hopes this percentage would be a small number, the reality is that as of now, only 48 percent of the students would be eligible for promotion at the end of the school year if the scores from the midterm exam were used.

“Initially, there might be a percent that we would not want (to retain), but we don’t want to get to the point where we have a third-grade class with 60 and 70 percent that can’t be promoted,” McGehee said.

McGehee said there are two other areas that the district needs to invest in to help the South Pike students: teachers’ assistants and a pre-kindergarten program.

Though teachers are aware that a large percentage of their students are struggling, the lack of teachers’ assistants gives students less opportunity for small group exercises or one-on-one work.

“As you can see, there is a problem. To make it more productive in these classrooms and for more learning to occur, the smaller classes are great,” McGehee said. “But even with that, we still have some problems that need to be addressed, and you’re still going to have to have interventions in small groups and one-on-one (instruction).”

McGehee said she will work on the policy over the next month and bring a revised version to the April 3 board meeting along with percentages of students who would not be promoted and what level the students were at when they entered school.

___

Information from: Enterprise-Journal, https://www.enterprise-journal.com

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