- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Despite intensive tutoring efforts in many school districts, only 500 more students passed Mississippi’s third-grade reading test on the third try over the summer.

That leaves 2,900 who didn’t pass - about 8 percent of all the students who first took the test in April. However, the number being forced to repeat third grade is lower because an unknown number of children received exemptions.

The Legislature established the test requirement in 2013, and last year’s third graders were the first to face it. To reach the passing score on the 50-question online test, a student must show basic reading skills but not national standards of proficiency.

Districts have yet to report exemption numbers, and it’s unclear when they will be available. Eligible for exemptions are students who have been learning English for fewer than two years, students with significant cognitive disabilities, special education students who have had two or more years of intervention and already flunked once, or any students with two or more years of intervention who have failed twice.

Students repeating third grade are supposed to receive intensive tutoring from highly qualified teachers.

“I think we now know which children we really need to zero in on and this law really highlights that,” said state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright.

After the original test, 5,600 of nearly 38,000 third-graders had failed. Another 2,000 passed a second round of testing in May. Many districts hosted summer programs for students who didn’t pass the first two times, but it’s unclear how effective they were. Wright said it’s unrealistic to make up deficits in a few weeks, or even a year.

“They can make a year’s progress in a year and they’re still below grade level,” Wright said. “You’re trying to figure out how to accelerate that progress.”

She said officials are focusing on identifying students who are behind and intervening earlier, noting a new kindergarten readiness assessment given to incoming five-year-olds.

Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Bryant say it’s preferable to hold back students who can’t read at a basic level to give them special attention.

“The third grade reading scores prove that Mississippi teachers and students are up to the challenge of making literacy a priority, and the improvement we have seen from the first test to the final test proves that the extra help these students and teachers are receiving as a result of the third grade gate is making a difference,” Bryant said in a statement.

Many researchers disagree, saying failing a grade leads to higher dropout rates and the harm outweighs the benefit. Others support the law, but say the $39.5 million spent by the state wasn’t enough to prepare, considering less than two years passed between legislative action and the first test.

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Online: Passing rates for districts and schools: https://bit.ly/1MctdCa

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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