Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Mississippi recently received troubling news about its youngest children.

A report released last month “revealed that two-thirds of the state’s youngest students enter school unprepared to learn and are, in fact, well below where they should be in terms of literacy,” according to the Cabinet Report article, “Crisis Brewing Among Early Learners.”

Mississippi’s Superintendent Carey Wright “is a staunch advocate of early childhood education but her mission to improve these programs for Mississippi kids has taken on new urgency in the wake of the state’s first assessment of kindergarten readiness,” the article says.

“More than 40,000 kindergarteners from 144 districts throughout the state took the STAR Early Literacy exam during the first month of this school year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. More than 65 percent of those students scored below the 530 benchmark score that indicates a student has mastered at least 70 percent of early reading skills.

“The state average score was 501.

“The assessment evaluated skills such as the ability to recognize letters and match letters to their sounds and a student’s recognition that print flows from left to right. The exam produced reports for parents and teachers that detail each child’s early reading skills. Teacher reports also include diagnostic information and instructional plans for every student.”

In January, Wright painted a fuller picture of her state’s challenges in a speech she made at the at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Capital Day.

“The 2013 Quality Counts report, issued by Education Week publication annually, places Mississippi 4th from the bottom when it comes to education,” she said, adding “47 percent of third-graders are not reading on grade level according to our state tests,” and noting that the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report found that only 18 percent of 4th graders and 19 percent of 8th graders are proficient in reading.

“I cite these statistics not to point fingers. The data are what the data are. I believe in transparency. We need to be honest and open about where we are in educating our children. Only then can we begin to improve our public education system and rewrite our story.”

The stakes are considerable. “Third-grade is a crucial measurement for Mississippi because of a state law requiring that students be retained if they can’t read at least at a basic level,” according to the Mississippi Business Journal, which adds, “…6,500 students could be in danger of not meeting those requirements.”

Mississippi isn’t alone.

“Last January, Oregon released a report on its first statewide kindergarten readiness assessment with what state education officials called ‘sobering’ results. For instance, 33 percent of entering kindergarteners could only name five or fewer letters of the alphabet and 14 percent couldn’t name a single letter,” the Cabinet Report article says, adding:

“Chicago Public Schools has been assessing incoming kindergartners since 2010, and Ohio just this fall replaced an older assessment with one aligned to its new Early Learning and Development Standards.”

Mississippi is working hard to change its children’s outcomes.

The state is applying for “a pre-kindergarten development grant from the federal government worth up to $15 million for four years. The grant could expand existing pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds by about 3,100 spots,” the Sun Herald reports. “With the number of Mississippi children living in poverty on the rise, Wright said it’s imperative to open up public pre-K for families who cannot afford private pre-K facilities.”

In her January speech, Wright took a firm stand, explaining, “…I am committed to making high-quality early childhood education programs more accessible to all children. If we expect our children to read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, which we should, then we need to ensure that they have the foundational skills necessary for success in kindergarten and beyond.”

Drawing on Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy, Wright said, “Please join me in the educational arena as we ‘dare greatly’ on behalf of the students of our great state.”