Opinion: Unveiling the Mississippi Reading ‘Miracle’ – Beyond Grade Retention

The Mississippi miracle in education is often hailed as a supernatural phenomenon, but the truth is much more grounded. The state’s impressive improvement in student achievement can be credited to the careful implementation of effective policies by dedicated individuals. While the decision to retain third-graders who don’t meet reading standards has gained significant attention, it’s important to recognize the broader program’s success rather than solely focusing on this rule.

Education officials across the country are working tirelessly to uncover the secrets behind Mississippi’s remarkable journey from last place in test scores to a more respectable position in the middle of the pack. With the impact of the pandemic causing learning loss for students nationwide, schools everywhere are grappling with the challenge of catching up. Unfortunately, most states have been unable to reach pre-2020 levels of achievement. However, Mississippi has not only achieved a personal record in reading this year but has also surpassed its peers’ gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The policy in question, which requires third-grade students to demonstrate reading proficiency before moving on to fourth grade, has garnered significant attention. Although Mississippi isn’t alone in enforcing such a standard, with over a dozen other states implementing retention policies, it remains a controversial measure. Retaining students can have social and emotional consequences, as it may result in friends being left behind. The long-term effects of retention policies applied in later grades are clear, as increased chronic absenteeism and dropout rates often outweigh the benefits of additional instructional time. However, when it comes to younger students, the impact is less certain.

Older studies from the 1990s caution against retaining students at any age, but recent analyses paint a more optimistic picture. Evidence suggests that while retaining students in middle or high school may lead to disengagement, retaining elementary school students can result in more positive outcomes. A review conducted this year, which focused on early literacy policies from the 2010s, revealed that states with retention strategies experienced greater progress in test scores. Additionally, an analysis of the initial group of students affected by Mississippi’s rule concluded that repeating third grade led to significantly higher reading scores in sixth grade, particularly for Black and Hispanic students.

These findings are promising; however, it’s crucial to understand that retention alone is not responsible for these improvements. It’s difficult to separate the effects of retention from the additional support provided to held-back students in states that have revamped their literacy approach. Beyond repeating a year, these students receive after-class tutoring, specialized instruction during school hours, and other forms of assistance that a simple repeat of the previous year wouldn’t offer.

There’s another hurdle to consider: Retention is both unpopular among parents and expensive for schools. As a result, many schools are reluctant to retain students. Some choose to grant exemptions, with varying levels of thoughtfulness depending on the circumstances (such as English as a second language, disabilities, or previous retention). However, the preferable approach is for schools to focus on prevention by detecting struggling students early and providing appropriate interventions. Mississippi, for example, has managed to bring approximately 75% of students to pass the initial assessment and closer to 85% to pass the retest.

While retention policies may lead to increased average scores for school districts due to the gains made by both retained and non-retained students, it’s important to acknowledge that these improvements are not solely attributed to retention. In Mississippi, literacy coaches have been carefully selected, trained, and monitored by the state to support teachers in adopting evidenced-based reading instruction. Teacher preparation programs have also incorporated these methods, and recommended curricular materials align with the state’s approach. When students fall behind, they are promptly identified and provided with assistance.

Retention, when implemented as part of a comprehensive strategy, may prove beneficial in helping students catch up after the disruptions caused by COVID-19. However, retention without such a strategy can be counterproductive and potentially harmful. It’s crucial to shift the focus away from retention as a miraculous solution and instead prioritize early intervention and comprehensive support. Silver bullets and miracles may be elusive, but with time and the right approach, we can undoubtedly make progress in addressing learning loss.


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