The South-Western City School District is showing improvement in the percentage of third-grade students who have reached the benchmark for promotion on the state reading test after their first exam.

The results from the fall 2017 test show that 56 percent of the district's third-graders already have earned promotion to fourth grade under the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, said Brian Bowser, the district's executive director of elementary schools.

That compares to 43 percent earning promotion after the fall administration of the test in the 2016-17 school year.

The test is given twice each year -- in the fall and the spring.

"It's important to remember that the fall test is based on end-of-the-year expectations," Bowser said. "It's not scaled back to the time of the year it's taken."

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Students who achieve a promotion score in the fall are demonstrating they have already reached the reading level that would be expected at the end of third grade, he said.

The promotion score is not the same as being "proficient," Bowser said. While the state benchmark for promotion is a score of 672, a student must earn a score of 700 to be considered proficient in reading.

"That causes some confusion for parents," he said. "They want to know why their child has 'passed' the test but still isn't considered proficient."

The improvement in the numbers is due partially to a consistent state test. The test standards have remained the same for three years, which makes it easier for teachers to shape effective instruction to meet those standards, Bowser said.

"Our teachers and staff work extremely hard and continue to use data and collaboration to make sure we are delivering the highest level of instruction to our students," he said.

It's "a cause for celebration" that a majority of this year's third-graders have already earned promotion in reading, Bowser said.

But there also is cause for concern, he said.

The percentage of third-graders who earned a proficient score or better on the fall test stands at 24 percent, almost exactly the same percentage as in the previous two years.

"That indicates to me we have continued work to do in the K-2 setting," Bowser said. "It tells me (our students are entering) third grade at the same starting point."

South-Western will be looking at how to add more rigor to reading instruction in grades K-2 to improve that initial result, he said.

This year's second-grade class was the first group to participate in the district's all-day, every-day kindergarten program, Superintendent Bill Wise said.

There is reason to be optimistic that the expanded kindergarten program will show dividends on the local results in next year's state third-grade reading test, he said.

Ninety-five students who were in third grade last year still are receiving support from district staff to get them to the promotion benchmark, Bowser said.

The district chooses to have those students continue on to fourth grade with the rest of their classmates while continuing to receive individual instruction in reading, he said.

Of the 95 students, 78 percent are either special education students or are learning English as their second language, Wise said.

"A significant percentage of our Limited English Proficient students will be fine. It's just a matter of time for them to learn the language," he said. "As I've said before, plop me down in France today and give me their third-grade reading test, and I'm not sure I'd do very well."

For students with documented disabilities, they have not "built into their own learning style many of the accommodations and skills that we work with for special-needs students," Wise said.

"How to use those accommodations in order to be successful -- they are still working that through with a great deal of adult help," he said.

Those two groups "we continue to struggle with," he said, but in that, South-Western is not unique among school districts, although the percentage of LEP and special-needs students in the district is higher than average.

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