At a time when hardly any state can celebrate its latest reading scores, Mississippi is a rare bright spot of literacy success. The state’s fourth-grade reading scores rank 21st in the nation, up from a dreadful 49th in 2013. Among fourth graders from low-income families, Mississippi ranks second, behind only Florida. 

So, how did Mississippi do it? The state approached reading as a science, trained its educators to detect struggling readers early on, and ensured that every student can read by the end of third grade. This didn’t happen overnight. In 2013, the state enacted the Literacy Based Promotion Act, which requires schools to hold students back in the third grade if they cannot pass a standardized reading test.

In the aftermath of enacting the reading law, Mississippi hired literacy coaches for the worst-performing schools. In 2017, it released an updated Comprehensive Literacy Plan with clear standards and instructions for implementation. By 2019, the state made remarkable progress in reading.

Per the Associated Press, Mississippi “requires every K-3 teacher, elementary principal and assistant principal to take a 55-hour training course in the science of reading.” The science of reading relies heavily on phonics and having students sound out words in class. While this may seem like common sense, a great many schools continue to use reading instruction methods that have been thoroughly debunked. 

One such method, the Lucy Calkins method of reading instruction, had students rely on visuals and context clues to discern the meaning of words. This method has been found to be so ineffective that, in 2022, Calkins herself released a drastically changed version of the curriculum that made her an education celebrity. The excellent “Sold a Story” podcast explains in depth how reading instruction in American public schools was hijacked by several unscientific methods that don’t teach students how letters build syllables, syllables build words, and words come with meaning. 

Mississippi teachers are trained to identify students falling behind in reading as young as kindergarten and to intervene to bring them up to speed. Early detection saves students from falling further behind. After all, a child who receives support when they’re only a month behind his or her peers will have an easier pathway than a child who is a year behind his or her peers by the time a teacher notices. 

Though the reading retention law correlates with a rise in the test score rankings, the Fordham Institute cautions that the legislation may not be the cause of the reading score rise: Had more students been held back after the law was enacted, the average age of the fourth-grade test taker would have increased. That didn’t happen, suggesting that the reading retention law was not the key to Mississippi’s success.

However, it is entirely possible that another aspect of the reading retention law boosted test scores. Whenever a third grader fails the reading exit test, he or she is given “multiple chances to pass after intensive tutoring and summer literacy camps,” according to the Associated Press. Perhaps it is not the act of being held back, but being given targeted support, that makes the difference for Mississippi’s struggling third graders. 

For those who are held back, even after being provided extra help, the second try at third grade can pay dividends later on in a student’s educational career. As the saying goes, “K-3, you learn to read, 4-12, you read to learn.” A student who cannot read to learn in the fourth grade and beyond is likely to fall even further behind. 

Mississippi is far from the only state to have a reading retention law; more than a dozen have such laws in place. What makes Mississippi stand out is its detailed and scientific approach to reading instruction, combined with a retention law that catches struggling readers who otherwise might have slipped through the cracks.

Prioritizing literacy and treating students as individuals are two basic principles all states can, and should, adopt. It doesn’t take massive expenditures to get students to read; it just takes well-trained teachers, targeted support, and smart public policy. Mississippi’s remarkable improvement in reading scores charts a practical path forward for other states in need of a reading revamp.