Much has been reported in the last two months about what has become known as the “Mississippi Miracle” growth in fourth-grade reading scores.
Mississippi went from being ranked the second-worst state in 2013 for fourth-grade reading to 21st in 2022, the Associated Press reported in May.
Since then, critics have called the “miracle” a “mirage” or “mistake” and written articles about how the state allegedly gamed the system to give the appearance of improvement.
LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote in his July 3 column, “A close examination of the numbers suggests that it’s not true. Bob Somerby and Kevin Drum, two of the most adept myth busters in the blogosphere, have done yeomen’s work deconstructing the statistics. Their conclusion is that Mississippi’s program isn’t nearly as successful as its fans assert and may not have produced any improvement at all in fourth-grade reading scores. The apparent gains may be a statistical illusion.”
While Hiltzik doesn’t go into specifics about Somerby and Drum’s analyses of the data, the two men explain in their blogs, The Daily Howler and Jabberwocking, respectively.
Somerby explains the NAEP data from a different perspective:
“Has ‘an education revolution’ taken place? Has a ‘huge success story’ occurred?
“As we showed you yesterday, the answer is quite plainly no! The refutation of that inviting, feel-good claim looks exactly like this:
|Asian-American kids||U.S. public schools||238.49|
|White kids||U.S. public schools||226.03|
|Lower-income Black kids||Mississippi||202.76|
Somerby continues, “Those scores display a yawning ‘race gap’ — the kind of large achievement gap which was once understood to constitute the nation’s public school problem.”
In addition, Somerby points out that eighth-grade scores should reflect similarly higher results, but they do not as of yet.
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In all fairness, he writes, the students who produced the 2019 scores that first demonstrated the upward trend were in the seventh grade in 2022, so it will be another year to two before anyone can really determine whether any real change will be seen in the eighth-grade scores.
Drum further explains that “the 2013 law mandated that third-grade kids who failed a year-end reading test be held back a year. This affected about 9% of all third graders.
“This means that if we then test in fourth grade, we’re automatically going to get higher scores than we should because the bottom kids are no longer in the testing pool. They’re still back in third grade. I figured this effect would be small, but I figured wrong.”
In Drum’s estimation, including the third-graders who were held back would significantly lower Mississippi’s scores to about 13 points below the U.S. average — virtually no change at all from 2013 scores.
Attempts to reach Somerby and Drum for interviews for this story were unsuccessful.
Despite the naysayers, supporters at some education organizations praise the state’s efforts to improve. Other states are taking notice of Mississippi’s gains and are working on developing similar models in hopes of seeing better results.
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An article in Education Week, published a year ago, said educators began implementing the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) program after seeing the gains made by Mississippi students.
“In 2014, Mississippi started LETRS training with its K-3 teachers, part of a broader effort to align reading instruction in the state to evidence-based practices. … In 2019, Mississippi students made big gains in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” the article said.
But other factors may also have been in play.
“It’s almost impossible to know exactly what moved the needle on student achievement — the state simultaneously made sweeping changes to coaching, curriculum and intervention,” Education Week noted
Mississippi also is touting its wins and standing firm in its data that shows the programs used by educators here are working.
“Since I became governor, our teachers have increased their salaries by almost $6,000 a year, and it’s deserved because our performance is so much better today than it was 12 years ago,” Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday. “I’m proud of our teachers.”
The 12 years Reeves is referring to include the eight years he served as lieutenant governor before he was elected governor in 2019. He is currently seeking reelection.
Mississippi wasn’t the only state in the South to see gains. Louisiana and Alabama were two of three states that saw modest gains in fourth-grade reading during the pandemic. Most other states saw massive learning setbacks, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to implementing education reforms, Mississippi educators will hold back a student if he or she is not able to pass the third-grade reading test. Before the students are officially held back, however, every effort is made to get them up to speed. They are given several opportunities to retake the test after receiving tutoring, and if that fails, they have the opportunity to attend summer literacy camps in hopes of getting caught up.
The Associated Press reported half the students at risk of repeating the third grade were able to pass the test and move up to the fourth grade by the end of the summer.
Taking the NAEP data at face value is a more realistic approach to interpreting the test scores, according to one group that studies education and its effects on the workforce.
Mississippi educators are not manipulating data but, rather, implementing a multi-tiered school improvement plan over time that is now seeing results, said Stephen Pruitt, president of the 16-state Southern Regional Education Board.
“When it comes to state assessments there has long been a temptation to question the results,” Pruitt said in a statement. “However, the results were validated by Mississippi scores on NAEP.
If there is a fault in using the M-word, Pruitt said, it’s in the idea that gains are a miracle.
“There’s nothing miraculous,” Pruitt said, “just hard and committed work.”