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State education leaders explain the...

State education leaders explain the hard work behind the ‘Mississippi Miracle’

By: Jeremy Pittari - November 3, 2023

Students at Eastlawn Elementary School in Pascagoula, MS (Photo from school's Facebook page, Sept. 1, 2022)

In 2013, the Mississippi Legislature passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act, which requires third graders to achieve grade-level reading before being advanced to the fourth grade. The focus in the classroom is paying off.

Last month, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) announced gains in reading assessment scores within school districts across the state. Overall, it was good news for the Magnolia State.

The news came at a time when many school districts nationwide did not have positive results to share, particularly as many struggled to overcome learning losses from prolonged COVID-related closures.

Governor Tate Reeves announced the good news via social media, saying, “The Mississippi Miracle is Real!” 

But for those who had a hand in setting forth the state’s new reading standards, the achievement was 10 years in the making. 

In 2013, the Mississippi Legislature passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act, which requires third graders to achieve grade-level reading before being advanced to the fourth grade.

There is evidence the emphasis on grade-level reading is paying off. Fourth graders sit for national standardized reading tests. Magnolia Tribune previously reported on the state’s decade-long climb on these tests:

In 2013, white students in Mississippi ranked 49th in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading tests. At that time, only Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Maine had worse scores for African American students.

By 2022, the latest year of NAEP testing, white fourth graders in Mississippi were performing 10th best among the states. Mississippi’s African American fourth graders rose to achieve the 5th highest score among the states.

Dr. Kymyona Burk was MDE’s K-3 literacy director in 2013 when then-Governor Phil Bryant and the Legislature passed the state’s Literacy Based Promotion Act. About two years later, she was promoted to oversee literacy in grades K-12, a role she served in until 2019.

Bryant has been vocal with media outlets that he backed the Act due to his own battle with dyslexia. Burk says the Act ensures third graders only move on to fourth grade when they are ready, not simply out of social promotion.

“It’s been a lot of hard work over a decade. It looks like a miracle and it happened overnight, but it did not. There is an intentional effort on implementation and boots on the ground. Some states don’t have that set up yet,” Burk emphasized.

The recent success is placing a lot of positive light on a state that historically came in last in every feasible ranking. As such, some states are reaching out to Mississippi educators asking for advice.

Burk says those states think Mississippi simply employed a checklist to achieve reading score gains. While there was a checklist, Burk credits the success to the hard work of teachers, MDE staff and the leadership of former State Superintendent Carey Wright. 

Dr. Tenette Smith, MDE’s Executive Director of Elementary Education and Reading, agrees there was no single strategy used to increase the scores. Instead, she cites multiple strategies as playing a part, including coaching, professional learning aligned with high quality instructional material, and a shift in thinking to focus on prevention and intervention versus retention. 

“We can’t be good at everything, so focusing on putting resources and dollars into literacy, for example, we’ve seen the fruits of that labor,” said Associate Superintendent of Secondary Education and Career and Technical Education Wendy Clemons. “If we invest in those few things that are really important in our state, then we will reap the benefits for that. We’re being asked to build a viable workforce; we can’t do that without strong early childhood and teaching.”

Partially based on a Florida law, Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act is a phonics-based effort to provide educators with a comprehensive approach to teaching children to read, with help from literacy coaches and parental involvement. Through additional screenings, the educators are able to identify reading deficiencies in children so they can be addressed earlier. 

During Burk’s time at MDE, she worked with literacy directors to implement the law, a task current literacy director Kristen Wynn now tackles. While Burk has moved on to become a Senior Policy Fellow at ExcelinEd, she still works with Wynn to look for ways to address adolescent literacy. 

“To continue the growth that we have in the numbers, but also the growth for our children to ensure they are successful and have a better quality of life, it will take scaling up and into a broader scale. We can’t just stop in elementary school,” Burk said. 

By expanding the focus to middle school children, and at some point high school students, Burk feels every student will exit the secondary education system with proficient reading skills. 

Irregularities that arose out of COVID have created concerns for Burk. Due to many schools being closed in 2020, third graders were provided with waivers, allowing them to move to the fourth grade without proving reading proficiency.

“Some of those students are now sitting in class and they are missing those key skills they should have learned,” Burk said. 

To help those students, MDE has provided districts with strategies that will address learning delays, Smith said. That may include access to high dosage tutoring programs and on-demand tutoring to shore up what was learned in the classroom. 

“We know it was a tumultuous time, but forward thinking was put in place to help schools and teachers,” Smith said. “If kids are provided access to complex on-grade-level text and interventions to areas where they are deficient, we can bridge that gap from COVID time.”

Some school districts might also have access to screening material for students up to 8th grade, or higher, according to Burk. Under the Act, all school districts are required to acquire screening material from vendors to determine proficiency for children in K-3, which is administered three times a year. All districts are reimbursed for that purchase by the state, but only up to 3rd grade.

Clemons hopes future endeavors will be successful in replicating what was achieved in 3rd grade reading in the 5th to 8th grades to support students as they navigate through the challenging middle school years, such as allowing for high school credit opportunities in middle school and dual credit programs through colleges.

“We like to really focus on helping students find those opportunities. That is a crucial time,” Celmons said. “A lot of times they leave high school with a plan, and then the summer melt comes. They plan on it in May, then in August, for various reasons, they don’t show up. It could be fear, or financial reasons.”

About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics. Email Jeremy: