Early Learning, Third-Grade Gate and Vouchers: A Legislative Education Update | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Early Learning, Third-Grade Gate and Vouchers: A Legislative Education Update

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright released her annual report on state education last week and met with the House Education Committee to update its members on progress and room for growth in the State's education initiatives.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright released her annual report on state education last week and met with the House Education Committee to update its members on progress and room for growth in the State's education initiatives. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

— Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education, addressed House Education Committee members last week at the Capitol about progress on education initiatives as well as room for growth and improvement.

Wright, who released her annual report last week, discussed early education, the Literacy Based Promotion Act (also known as the third-grade reading gate) and special-education vouchers with lawmakers.

The Mississippi Department of Education expanded early-learning collaboratives, which are public pre-kindergarten programs, across the state after the Legislature appropriated additional funding in the last session.

Initially, Mississippi had 11 early-learning collaboratives, but now MDE has approved four more. The state has 14 collaboratives, Wright said last week, after one chose to close.

Wright said the collaboratives improved kindergarten readiness. In the 2014-2015 school year, only 59 percent of the pre-kindergarten students in the programs were considered "kindergarten ready." Last year, that number increased to 71 percent. MDE provides professional development for early-learning collaboratives and pre-kindergarten programs, whether they are public or private. MDE tracks Pre-kindergarteners through their kindergarten classes, and those test scores went up too.

"Our kindergarten teachers are knocking it out of the park," Wright told the House Education Committee meeting this week.

Mississippi students increased their scores on the third-grade reading gate exams last year, Wright's annual report shows, but she reminded lawmakers that passing the third-grade reading gate does not ensure proficiency.

The test is graded on a scale of 1 to 5, and students need a 4 or 5 to be considered proficient, Wright said. To pass, however, students only needed to reach a 2 in the 2015-2016 school year. That standard will increase this year, and students will need a 3 to pass, Wright said.

Ninety-two percent of third graders who took the test passed, but only 32 percent of those third graders received a score of 4 or 5.

Gov. Phil Bryant praised the results of the third-grade reading test in his remarks at the Mississippi Economic Council's Capital Day last week. On Jan. 4, Wright reiterated that passing does not mean being on reading level.

"The important part for you to remember here is that passing this assessment is not the same as proficiency, and I need everyone to really clearly understand that because I've heard people say, 'We have 92 percent of our third graders proficient in reading,' and the answer is no, you have 92 percent of our third graders who have passed this assessment. Now, are a good portion of them proficient? Absolutely. But you help me raise the bar on this," Wright said.

The state's special-education scholarship program enables students with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, to leave public schools and use vouchers to pay for special education elsewhere. Wright said MDE awarded 425 scholarships, but families must ask for reimbursement to receive the money. Two hundred and seventy-four families of the 425 have asked the State for reimbursement, while 109 of those children who originally signed up for the program have returned to public schools. Wright said MDE is following up with families that went back to public schools or those who haven't asked for reimbursement funds yet.

"We are sending notifications to everybody, particularly those who have been awarded but not asked for reimbursement as well as those that have re-enrolled in public schools to verify their status," Wright told House Education Committee members on Jan. 4. "We want to make sure that they are taking advantage of the money that you've provided, and if not, why not, but that's certainly their option but we want them to maximize this."

Read Dr. Wright's full annual report.

Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at arielle@jacksonfreepress.com and follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara for breaking news.

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