Area schools received news last week from the Mississippi Department of Education regarding which of their 3rd grade students passed the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program’s reading assessment test given in May.

Neshoba Central Elementary had a passage rate above 95 percent, as did Union Elementary, which puts them among the more than 60 school districts that scored 95 percent or above.

Philadelphia Elementary had a passage rate of 90.8 percent.

Statewide, 93.2 percent of 3rd graders passed the test. The statewide pass rate has increased every year since the test was first administered, rising from 85 percent in 2015, to 87 percent in 2016,  to 92 percent in 2017.

While the state only provides passage rates above 95 percent as a single number, Neshoba Central Elementary School Principal Tiffany Plott said that the school’s passage rate came out to 97.2 percent. Like the state numbers Plott said that NCES’ numbers have increased every year, beginning at 90.3 percent in 2015.

“We are proud that our numbers are increasing faster than the state numbers,” Plott said.

Plott said part of the reason the school is experiencing an increase in passage rates is due to the school’s focus on improving young readers foundational awareness. Plott explained that each year the school analyzes an assortment of data including state tests and the schools own internal testing procedures to determine where students are in the process and then provide targeted instruction to help for those students who may not be proficient in all areas.

One of the areas that has received attention is in phonics. Plott noted that the school started by implementing phonics in the earlier grade levels and has seen improvement in those areas.

“Where we have implemented more foundational elements we have seen improvement,” Plott said. “For instance with our 1st grade students, we have seen their assessments increase.  The importance is emphasis on early foundational reading skills.”

Plott said the school has also reached out to other entities to ensure students are getting the proper foundation before entering school.

“We have reached out to the Headstart program and our Pre-Ks so that they know what they need to do to prepare kids and to allow us all to be on the same page,” she said.

According to Plott, eight students did not pass the test out of 248, but six qualify for what is known as “good cause” to be promoted to the 4th grade. Good cause allows students who may have failed the test to proceed to the 4th grade if they meet one of five established criteria set by the state department of education.

Philadelphia School Superintendent Lisa Hull said that only one of their students will not be able to pass on to the fourth grade. The school had a 90.8 percent passage rate for 76 students. She noted that of those that did not pass, all but one qualified for the good cause exemption.

Hull said that part of the school’s strategy to ensure students are prepared for the test is to monitor all of the students throughout the year to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

“For some students it may be fluency or it may be phonetic awareness,” Hull said. “We assess each of the students to determine what we need to provide. It may be simply more classroom instruction, tutoring or possibly a reading interventionist. We want to work on those skills that a child may be missing.”

Hull said the district approaches the students’ needs from a myriad of different angles and focuses on gathering information and data points throughout the year to help ascertain how to best help a student.

“We are constantly monitoring our children to make sure they are reaching their goals,” she said.

While area schools have reasons to be optimistic about this year’s scores, next year will bring a whole host of new challenges. Under the current system, passage is set at performing at or above what is known as Performance Level 2. Next year, the requirement will be that students will only pass by reaching Performance Level 3. For many schools this could be a significant percentage drop for students passing the exam.

Plott said that with the higher standards she expects passing rates to fall statewide but notes that the school will do all it can to retain its high passage rate. She said that the school will look closely at the data from this year’s test and will use that data to expand on the school’s current program of instruction to ensure students have the best opportunity to pass the exam.

Hull said that based upon information she has received from the MDE, scores statewide could drop down into the 70-80 percent range for the majority of schools. In a school like PES, this could mean failure rates in the high teens or 20s.

Hull said that such numbers would be unacceptable and that PES will continue to develop some of the programs it had already implemented.

“We will ramp up some of the programs and we plan to be more targeted with what we are doing,” Hull said. “We want to strengthen the practices we already have.”

Like Plott, Hull said that PES will continue to look at the relevant data coming from the state tests and self-assessments and will continue to use those data points to determine which students need help and how to best help those students.