Effectiveness of Early Literacy Policies When Statewide Efforts Support Them
Journal of Education Practices and Trends, July 2024

Dr. Kristin Javorsky, Associate Professor, Early Literacy Education, Mississippi State University
Dr. Kellie Fondren, Assistant Professor, Special Education, Mississippi State University
Dr. Angela Mulkana, Assistant Teaching Professor, Elementary Education, Mississippi State University
Kim Smith, Instructor, Elementary Education, Mississippi State University

Mississippi has transformed their literacy outcomes through strategies focused on improving the reading skills of public-school students in kindergarten through third grade, referred to as the Mississippi Miracle. The Literacy-Based Promotion Act led to significant changes, especially within Mississippi’s teacher education programs, resulting in great reading achievements of school districts and students.

In 2022, Mississippi fourth-grade students surprised the rest of the nation when their reading achievement scores on the Nation’s Report Card from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) jumped from 49th place to a first-ever 21st place in the nation. (U.S. Department of Education, 2022). Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) may have been the only one not surprised by this announcement given that in 2019, “Mississippi achieved the No. 1 spot in the nation for NAEP gains when fourth-grade students made the largest score gains from 2017 to 2019 in reading and mathematics, eighth-grade students outpaced the nation for growth in mathematics, and eighth-grade reading held steady,” (MDE, 2022). The announcement in 2022 that Mississippi’s students were continuing to climb in national rankings was even more intriguing when considering the nationwide concerns about post-pandemic learning loss (Betebenner, & Wenning, 2021). The magnitude of these improvements has been described in the popular press as “The Mississippi Miracle” (Barnum, 2023; Lurye, 2023; Kaufman, 2022; Kristof, 2023) but a closer examination of Mississippi’s efforts shows that rather than a miracle, these reading scores are just one outcome of what has been a long, deliberate process. This article describes the multiple literacy initiatives and stakeholder collaborations that have propelled Mississippi on a continued upward trajectory in student reading achievement.


Before making national headlines with the 2022 NAEP scores, literacy trends in Mississippi tended to show minimal growth yearly, with a large gap between the state’s scores and the national average (USDOE, 2022). The history of Mississippi’s targeted efforts to improve student literacy outcomes can be tied all the way back to the release of Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read (National Reading Panel, 2000). Quickly becoming a cornerstone for reading legislation and policies at the national level, the report outlined phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension as the “Big Five” necessary components for teaching children how to read. This report also sparked discussions in Mississippi on the importance of applying the science of reading throughout both K-12 schools and teacher preparation programs, an approach that has since been widely acknowledged (Duke & Cartwright, 2021; Hindman, Morrison, Connor & Connor, 2020; National Council on Teacher Quality, 2023). If significant, lasting change in student reading achievement was the long-term goal for Mississippi, then stakeholders at every level would need to be willing to re-evaluate how teachers should best be prepared and how K-12 students should best be served. The Mississippi Legislature’s passage of both the Literacy Based Promotion Act (LBPA) and Early Learning Collaboratives Act (ELCA) in 2013 was arguably the landmark moment when increasing student reading proficiency began to change from hopeful thinking to intensive reform in Mississippi. However, it is important to recognize that work in this area had already begun at the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) level more than a decade earlier.

Preparing Teachers for Reading Instruction

In 2005, the Mississippi State Board of Education (SBE) adopted a licensure policy and articulation agreement that would require every accredited teacher preparation program (TPP) to include six hours of early literacy coursework as both a requirement within the elementary education program of study and for subsequent teacher licensure in Mississippi. In response, TPPs worked collaboratively with the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) to form the Mississippi’s Higher Education Literacy Council (HELC) which then met to develop common syllabi for required reading coursework that would emphasize the five components of reading identified in the NRP’s report. All TPPs had continued to honor this articulation agreement but after almost a decade some educational stakeholders began to wonder whether the content of these courses was keeping pace with the growing body of research referred to as the “science of reading.” In 2014, the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI), a privately funded organization designed to promote literacy in Mississippi, conducted a statewide study in collaboration with IHL to review compliance with the literacy coursework policy and articulation agreement. This study also incorporated campus visits and a methodical review of course syllabi and instructional schedules. Results of the study, released in 2015, identified strengths within each of the state’s TPPs and universal opportunities for a stronger emphasis on reading science.

Mississippi Momentum and Foundations of Reading

These report findings would become important as a related teacher licensure change was underway. In 2016, the Mississippi Legislature amended Miss. Ann. Code § 37-3-2, codifying the requirement for elementary education licensure candidates to pass a test of scientifically research-based reading instruction and intervention. While this was an unusual move that very few other states had made at the time, licensure exams for reading instruction can help ensure teacher quality and more state departments of education have since begun to follow suit (Putman & Walsh, 2021). Developed by Pearson Education, the Mississippi Foundations of Reading exam would include 100 multiple-choice items and two written assignments requiring licensure candidates to demonstrate understanding of reading foundational skills, reading comprehension, and reading assessment and instruction across the elementary grades (Pearson Education, n.d.).

In response to the BRI report and this new testing requirement, TPP faculty, MDE, and BRI had reconvened the Higher Education Literacy Council (HELC) to bring literacy faculty together for professional development related to early reading instruction and for discussion related to ensuring content coverage for the licensure exam. That same year, a Governor’s Task Force for Teacher Preparation for Early Literacy Instruction, created by Executive Order #1380, was charged with developing an action plan for strengthening teacher preparation for early literacy instruction. The task force membership represented all levels of the education sector and included individuals from HELC, MDE, IHL, HELC, BRI, and the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction (CELI). The team focused on a professional growth model for TPP faculty teaching courses in foundational literacy skills. Support for implementation came in 2017 through a three-year grant from Kellogg Foundation titled “Mississippi Momentum,” funding professional development and mentorship for 40 TPP faculty from across the state. Requiring a three-year participation commitment from the TPP faculty, it included formal training in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) program (Voyager Sopris Learning, 2019) along with coaching from experts in the reading science. The Phil Hardin Foundation supported an external evaluation of the project, BRI provided staffing for development of the model and meeting space for the seminars, and CELI served as the fiscal agent for the project. The ongoing efforts by Mississippi TPPs and these supportive education stakeholders were later validated by the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) in its nationwide TPP analysis which determined that “with strong state policies, effective implementation, and accountability, states can improve the quality of teacher preparation in reading,” (Ellis et al., 2023). Furthermore, that “better teacher preparation could cut reading failure rates by more than two-thirds” (NCTQ, 2023). In the first year of use, the initial pass rate for pre-service teachers on the Mississippi Foundations of Reading exam was 54%. By 2023, the initial pass rate had risen to 65% and the overall historical pass rate reached 69%, even after the required exam score for licensure had been raised from 229 to 233 in 2021 (MDE, 2021).

Achieving Reading Proficiency by Third Grade

While TPPs were finding success with these multiple initiatives for improving outcomes for pre-service teachers, MDE and school district personnel were concurrently focused on addressing needs within the K-12 school system. The LBPA required MDE to train and deploy literacy coaches to the state’s lowest performing schools. These coaches and an inaugural cohort of K-3 educators then attended LETRS training that same year. In-service teachers responded so positively to this professional development in reading science that MDE expanded its offerings to include more teachers using a cohort model in subsequent years, first with LETRS (Lexia Learning, 2021) and more recently with Aims Pathway (MDE, 2022, 2023, 2024). Beginning in 2018, MDE also began participating in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM) initiative, providing school districts with evaluations, recommendations, and training for identifying and adopting HQIM that used evidence-based practices and assessments for reading. (MDE, 2018).

Early Education, Identification, and Intervention

Along with the advent of LBPA, the concurrent passage of ELCA in 2013 established the first state-funded pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds by creating a collaborative delivery model between MDE and local education providers. Due to steady funding increases from the legislature, the availability of public pre-kindergarten in Mississippi grew from 11 early learning collaboratives (ELC) in 2013 to 35 ELCs by 2024 (Mississippi First, 2024). The legislature also allocated additional funds in 2022 to provide coaching for early childhood teachers and ensure high-quality instruction leading to kindergarten readiness.

In 2018, in accordance with Miss. Ann. Code § 37-23-16, school districts were required to begin using screeners in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Kindergarten readiness assessments and diagnostic screeners were implemented to identify specific needs for foundational literacy skills as soon as students entered school. Results were then used at the school level to provide targeted interventions based on identified needs. Early literacy initiatives also focused on providing resources to support families to improve reading skills and opportunities at home, and professional development opportunities were provided for early childhood educators. In 2015, only 59% of Mississippi’s students who had been enrolled in one of the ELCs were meeting the end-of-the-year kindergarten readiness expectations. By 2023, this metric had increased to 64.8 percent (MDE, 2023).

Assessment in Third Grade

An additional outcome of the LBPA was the institution of a statewide, standardized reading assessment given at the end of third grade to confirm that students are reading “at grade level” and academically ready for promotion to fourth grade. The reading portion of the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) English Language Arts test was designated for this purpose. Developed by MDE in collaboration with teachers across the state, the MAAP is based on the Mississippi College and Career Readiness Standards (MCCRS). Students would be assigned achievement level scores ranging from 1 (Minimal) to 5 (Advanced). Initially, third grade students would have to receive an achievement level score of 2 (Basic) or higher on the MAAP to qualify for promotion to fourth grade. Within the first three years of implementation the percentage of students passing the exam (allowing for re-tests) rose from 85% in 2015 to 93.2% in 2018. Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, expectations for third grade students were increased to require an achievement level score of 3 (Passing) or higher for grade promotion. When Mississippi resumed testing in the 2022-23 school year after waivers due to the COVID-19 pandemic ended, it was notable that despite having spent first and second grade under the shadow of the pandemic, 76.3% of the state’s 31,623 third grade students passed the exam on their first attempt. This percentage exceeded both the 2021-22 initial rate of 73.9% and the 2018-19 initial rate of 74.5% prior to the pandemic.

Stronger Academic Support Rather than Social Promotion

Passage of the LBPA effectively ended a practice referred to as “social promotion.” Before this legislation, promoting students to the next grade level with their peers regardless of their academic performance or readiness had been common practice in Mississippi as well as much of the United States (Crepeau-Hobson, 2016). With this policy shift, SBE and MDE were relying on research that indicated that children who are not proficient readers by third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school on time (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012). They also leaned heavily on research suggesting that ending social promotion and reducing potential grade retention could both be possible as part of a larger strategy for supporting student achievement (Denton, 2001; Green & Winters, 2006; Jimerson et al., 2006). However, the LPBA also recognized four “good cause” exemptions: 1) English learners with less than two years of EL-focused instruction, 2) students with disabilities whose IEP indicated that participation in the statewide accountability assessment program was not appropriate, 3) students who demonstrated reading proficiency on a SBE-approved alternate assessment, and 4) students who had received two or more years of intensive reading intervention but still demonstrated a reading deficiency despite also being retained at least twice without meeting exceptional education criteria (MDE, 2022).

Remediation and Support for Students at Risk

In 2016, the LBPA was amended to require a higher cut score for third-grade promotion but also added a provision requiring individual reading plans (IRP) for students identified with a reading deficiency. (Hensley et al., 2019). Mississippi was already using the Response to Intervention framework that provided tiered support for struggling readers by placing them in their least restrictive environment for making progress toward reading proficiency. Students identified as at risk for retention would now also receive intensive instruction in reading that involved small group or individualized settings. Districts were also being encouraged to implement structured literacy programs using HQIM that would provide additional systematic and explicit instruction, and third grade students not earning the necessary MAAP achievement score on their first attempt could participate in extended school year opportunities. Following remediation efforts, third grade students with MAAP scores below the required level would be allowed up to two additional opportunities to retake the assessment for grade promotion.

Continued Improvements in Teacher Preparation Programs

In 2022, the Mississippi State Board of Education (SBE) codified a revised four-course reading sequence for TPPs that added a literacy assessment course and a course on reading and writing across the curriculum. Then in 2023, the SBE expanded the requirement for a passing score on the Mississippi Foundations of Reading exam to include all applicants for the Special Education Mild/Moderate K-12 license. This was a significant change that would require all pre-service special education teachers to complete specific coursework in foundational reading skills and early literacy development. While strategies to provide a universal design for learning would need to be emphasized to increase the inclusive classroom environment, pre-service special education teachers would also need training in reading instruction and intervention that could meet the needs of students through evidence-based practices, co-teaching, collaboration, cultural responsiveness, and family and community engagement.


It was a watershed moment for reading instruction in Mississippi when the legislature enacted both LBPA and ELCA in 2013, but Mississippi’s documented transformation of reading achievement required years of systematically implemented literacy initiatives and sustained stakeholder collaborations. Establishment and expansion of the state’s Early Learning Collaboratives was essential in preparing incoming kindergartners for grade level reading and writing expectations. To make effective reading instruction a reality, teacher preparation coursework needed to be aligned with reading science and statewide professional development opportunities needed to be provided to in-service teachers. School districts needed to prioritize using HQIM, providing IDPs, and communicating with families at critical time points in their child’s progress toward proficient reading. As performance on the statewide reading assessment by its third-grade students has improved year-over-year and NAEP reading scores by its fourth-grade students have continued to make national headlines, Mississippi’s efforts toward improved student outcomes demonstrate the value of a state’s sustained investment and support for literacy education at all levels including its teacher preparation programs, early childhood programs, and K-12 instruction.


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